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US credibility damaged by reversal on Israeli settlements

Having previously made unequivocal demands that all forms of settlement growth must stop, the Obama administration has now acceded to Israel's plans to continue constructing thousands of housing units in the West Bank. Yet in a speech last June Barack Obama boldly declared: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."

In a speech in Cairo that was widely applauded across the region last June, the US president, Barack Obama, boldly declared: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop." Five months later Mr Obama's resolve appears to have withered. He sent his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to deliver news that Israel was only too eager to hear. "US credibility in the Arab world has suffered a serious setback after Hillary Clinton dropped demands for a halt to Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank," The Daily Telegraph reported. "Signalling an end to the brief flirtation with the Palestinian cause, the US secretary of state flew to Jerusalem to voice full American support for Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. "In an effort to repair badly strained US-Israeli relations, she heaped praise on Mr Netanyahu, lauding his offer to limit settlement construction - even though it falls well short of President Obama's original demands." In an editorial, The National noted: "The US has spent months pressurising Israel over its illegal settlement construction, winning friends in the Middle East and shaking the confidence of Benjamin Netanyahu's government. The US had been accused, with justification at times, of being too pro-Israeli to be an honest broker, but the new tack was a potential turning point in the peace negotiations. Now, apparently, the US has decided to throw those months of hard work out the window." Back in May, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been shocked to be confronted by the sea change that he faced in Washington. In contrast with the previous administration, Israel could no longer enjoy either the White House or even Congress' unqualified support. As Laura Rozen reported at that time: "In the 10 days since Netanyahu and President Barack Obama held a meeting at the White House, the Obama administration has made clear in public and private meetings with Israeli officials that it intends to hold a firm line on Obama's call to stop Israeli settlements. According to many observers in Washington and Israel, the Israeli prime minister, looking for loopholes and hidden agreements that have often existed in the past with Washington, has been flummoxed by an unusually united line that has come not just from the Obama White House and the secretary of state, but also from pro-Israel congressmen and women who have come through Israel for meetings with him over Memorial Day recess. To Netanyahu's dismay, Obama doesn't appear to have a hidden policy. It is what he said it was." At the same time, The New York Times confirmed that the administration was emphatic in holding to its position on settlement expansion. "Speaking of President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, 'He wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not "natural growth" exceptions.' Talking to reporters after a meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, she said: 'That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly.'" In an op-ed that appeared in The Jerusalem Post in July, Debra Delee, the president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, wrote: "I don't think that Netanyahu and his aides are genuinely perplexed or mystified by the administration's demand that Israel stop all settlement construction in the West Bank. They know why settlements are an obstruction to earnestly negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinians. They know that settlements are an obstacle to the implementation of a two-state solution and therefore an impediment to America's policy in the region. They also know that Israel is committed to the road map peace plan, which calls for freezing all settlement activity including 'natural growth'. "What they apparently refuse to understand is that this president, unlike his predecessors in the White House, really means it. He genuinely means it when he says he intends to push vigorously for a comprehensive Middle East peace deal that includes the creation of a Palestinian state. This president means what he says and says what he thinks. President Barack Obama promised Americans to always tell them the truth. He is doing the same with his interlocutors overseas." The mood in Washington has since changed. After Mrs Clinton signalled that the US will not object to Israel's completion of 3,000 housing units on Palestinian occupied territory and welcomed Mr Netanyahu's "unprecedented" concessions on settlements, she also called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to re-engage in negotiations with Israel. "Palestinians rejected the idea of resuming talks, reiterating their demand that Israel must first freeze all construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem - lands they claim for a future state," the Associated Press reported. " 'I believe that the US condones continued settlement expansion,' Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib said in a rare public chiding of Washington. " 'Calling for a resumption of negotiations despite continued settlement construction doesn't help because we have tried this way many times,' Khatib added. 'Negotiations are about ending the occupation and settlement expansion is about entrenching the occupation.' "Palestinians expressed deep disappointment and frustration at Clinton's words, which signaled a departure from past US calls for a complete freeze on settlement activity. " 'If America cannot get Israel to implement a settlement freeze, what chance do Palestinians have of reaching agreement with Israel on permanent status issues?' Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said." The Israeli columnist, Gideon Levy, wrote in Haaretz: "Now is the time to say to the United States: Enough flattery. If you don't change the tone, nothing will change. As long as Israel feels the United States is in its pocket, and that America's automatic veto will save it from condemnations and sanctions, that it will receive massive aid unconditionally, and that it can continue waging punitive, lethal campaigns without a word from Washington, killing, destroying and imprisoning without the world's policeman making a sound, it will continue in its ways. "Illegal acts like the occupation and settlement expansion, and offensives that may have involved war crimes, as in Gaza, deserve a different approach. If America and the world had issued condemnations after Operation Summer Rains in 2006 - which left 400 Palestinians dead and severe infrastructure damage in the first major operation in Gaza since the disengagement - then Operation Cast Lead never would have been launched. "It is true that unlike all the world's other troublemakers, Israel is viewed as a Western democracy, but Israel of 2009 is a country whose language is force. Anwar Sadat may have been the last leader to win our hearts with optimistic, hope-igniting speeches. If he were to visit Israel today, he would be jeered off the stage. The Syrian president pleads for peace and Israel callously dismisses him, the United States begs for a settlement freeze and Israel turns up its nose. This is what happens when there are no consequences for Israel's inaction."

pwoodward@thenational.ae

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