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Is a new West Bank settlement Obama's red line?

If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists on defying the US president and building a new West Bank settlement, Barack Obama could respond by abstaining in a UN Security Council vote on Palestinian Statehood.
A picture taken from the West Bank Christian village of Taybeh on September 11, 2016, shows the wildcat Jewish settlement of Amona.
An Israeli court has ruled that the wildcat Jewish settlement of Amona, where live around 40 families in mainly caravan homes, is on Palestinian property and must be evacuated by December 25. Settlements such as Amona are called outposts -- those that Israel has not approved. Outpost residents hope such authorisation will one day be provided, as has occurred in other cases. Amo

If it were up to Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister would have asked the settlers to rein in their passion for real estate at least until Barack Obama vacates his seat for the next US president. Netanyahu can already take comfort in the fact that despite the protests of the outgoing Obama administration, since it took office in 2009 the number of Jewish West Bank settlers has grown from some 300,000 to about 400,000. Nothing troubles the prime minister more these days than the possibility that Obama will take advantage of the transition period between Nov. 9 and Jan. 20 to leave him a poisoned farewell gift. And nothing makes the Obama administration angrier than the construction of a new settlement.

Unfortunately for Netanyahu, the American calendar is not in sync with the Israeli one. Dec. 25 marks the expiration of the two-year delay granted to carry out the court-ordered demolition of the West Bank outpost of Amona. The chief justice at the time, Asher Grunis, wrote in his ruling that the difficulties of the settlers notwithstanding, illegal construction on private Palestinian land cannot be allowed and does not justify non-enforcement of the law. The judge stressed that not vacating Amona constitutes a violation of the state’s reiterated commitment to carry out the demolition orders, in addition to being a serious violation of the Palestinian inhabitants’ rights. A report by the state comptroller several months prior to the ruling described Israel’s planning in the West Bank as “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

On one hand, in a democratic state a prime minister is supposed to respect court rulings. But on the other hand, Netanyahu is dependent on his coalition partner, the nationalist-religious party HaBayit HaYehudi — whose leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, operates according to the rulings of a higher power that transcends that of flesh-and-blood authorities. In July 2015, Bennett climbed onto the roof of a house in the Beit-El settlement to protest the razing of a building ordered by the Supreme Court. He demanded that Netanyahu inform the nation’s top court that the demolition (of Jewish homes, of course) "does not fit the spirit of the government.”

In an attempt to have his cake and eat it, Netanyahu decided to establish new residences for the Amona evacuees. On Oct. 1, several hours after President Barack Obama delivered his stirring eulogy of Shimon Peres at the Jerusalem graveside of Israel’s ninth president, Channel 2 News reported that the top planning committee of Israel’s civil administration in the West Bank had authorized a plan to build 98 housing units in a new settlement to be built near the settlement of Shvut Rahel. According to the plan, up to 300 housing units can be built in the designated area. As a consolation prize, the Amona squatters have also been promised permission to build an industrial zone in their new settlement. In order to circumvent a pledge delivered in Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan speech to Obama and to the entire world to refrain from building new settlements in the West Bank until a permanent arrangement is reached with the Palestinians, the new settlement has been defined by the committee as a "neighborhood" of Shvut Rahel.

Israel (as well as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC] lobby in Washington) claims that in 2004, on the eve of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, President George W. Bush OK'd Israeli construction in the “settlement blocs” of Area C, the area of the West Bank under total Israeli control. As far as Israel is concerned, it, of course, is the one that defines these “blocs.” Israel and AIPAC claim that this unwritten presidential authorization was an annex to the written commitment (letters exchange) provided by Bush to late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the effect that negotiations on a permanent agreement with the Palestinians would factor in “new realities on the ground” created since 1967, when Israel took over the West Bank. But it was then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who said in 2009, “With respect to the conditions regarding understandings between the United States and the former Israeli government and the former government of the United States, we have the negotiating record. … There is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements.”

She went on to say, “If they did occur, which, of course, people say they did, they did not become part of the official position of the United States government.” She even pointed to the existence of documents suggesting that oral agreements should not be viewed in any way as contradicting commitments Israel had undertaken to the Road Map for Middle East peace. “These commitments are very clear,” she noted, referring to the Middle East Quartet’s 2003 blueprint for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The document obliges Israel to totally refrain from construction in the settlements, without distinguishing between a “neighborhood,” a “bloc” or “outside a bloc.” That same year, at the initiative of Bush, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted the Road Map.

Israel is taking seriously the Oct. 5 White House announcement that the new settlement constitutes a violation of the Israeli government’s commitment to the United States. An Israeli violation of commitments it gave regarding settlements would make it easier for the United States to extricate itself from its commitment to oppose unilateral moves against Israel. If Netanyahu insists on establishing the new settlement, despite Obama’s anger, the president could well be encouraged to abstain in the UN Security Council vote on the recognition of a Palestinian state.

Paradoxically, the Amona settlers might turn out to be the ones to pull the irons out of the fire for Netanyahu. Their refusal to move to the site designated for their relocation makes the new settlement redundant. An upgraded 2016 rerun of the 2006 evacuation of nine houses in the settlement of Amona, a move that ended in a violent confrontation with security forces, could push HaBayit HaYehudi into the opposition. Netanyahu has already ascertained that the other parties in his ruling coalition would gladly welcome opposition leader Isaac Herzog to their ranks, thus cementing a coalition majority even if HaBayit HaYehudi leaves.

After Netanyahu evacuates the settlement that has become a symbol and replaces HaBayit HaYehudi with Herzog’s Zionist Camp, Obama will have no choice but to praise him. And what about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas? He will probably have to wait until Nov. 8 and hope that Democratic candidate Clinton knows that the letter “C” does not designate the third article of the Second Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestinians that her husband signed while in office, but is the designation of the Palestinian territory that Israel is only supposed to rule temporarily. The deadline for Israel to cede control of Area C came and went when she was still the first lady.

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