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The Settlement Obsession
ELLIOTT ABRAMS is Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser.See more by this author
On taking office in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama put Israeli settlements at the center of U.S. policy in the Middle East. In Washington's view, a complete construction freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem became not only desirable but also a prerequisite to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Previous U.S. administrations of both parties had never taken such a stance, and in fact, there had been years of negotiations (not least at Camp David in 2000 and after the Annapolis meeting in 2007) while Israeli settlement activity continued. But the Obama administration stuck to its demand, and when Israel refused to freeze construction, 2009 and much of 2010 went by without negotiations. This only changed in November 2010, when the White House abandoned the entire approach and began to search for a new one.
This single-minded focus on a construction freeze was clearly a mistake in the sense that it failed: the Israeli government did not agree to a freeze in East Jerusalem. Nor could any earlier Israeli governments have accepted such a demand, even if they, like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had been open to partial or time-limited freezes in the West Bank. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed the situation well when he said in April 2011, "I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable." What is more, the Obama administration's demand had the effect of cornering Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who could not ask for less than Washington; if the U.S. president thought a total freeze was a prerequisite to negotiations, Abbas would have to think so, too. As a weary Abbas told Newsweek in April, the Obama administration led him up a tree and then "removed the ladder."