Obama’s Betrayal of Israel
Obama, and the Democratic Party he represents, abandoned one of its closest allies, and only democracy in the Middle East, Israel, this Friday. Some might claim that this is an overstatement, after all, other administrations have allowed UN resolutions to pass. In fact, it has been US policy to discourage the Israeli settlement policy. So, one should question why this particular abstention caused such an uproar. Clearly this is Obama’s personal revenge on Prime Minister Netanyahu. Obama is soon to become a part of history and he saw one last opportunity to pay back Netanyahu for eight years on enmity. But beyond Obama’s petty move, it is critical to understand the claim that settlements are at the core of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, and that they are an obstacle to peace.
Before delving into the settlements, it is important to understand how land ownership has been handled since the early 16th century by the Ottoman Empire conquered the land the Roman’s called “Palestine” to eradicate the memory of its Jewish history. The vast majority of the land was either arable land leased to farmers, or unfarmable land that was wholly owned by the state. There was also other land set aside for public utilities, as well as land owned by religious institutions. Privately owned and titled land was rare.
When the Ottomans were defeated by the Allies in World War I, the British were left with a UN Mandate to administer the land. As caretakers, they left Ottoman land ownership rules in place. And with the War of Independence, the State of Israel inherited the same laws. In fact, 93% of all land in Israel and so-called West Bank is owned and administered by the State of Israel or quasi-governmental agencies like the Jewish National Fund.
Therefore, when Palestinians claim they have deeds to lands confiscated by Israel or Jewish Israelis, they have great difficulty in producing deeds to these lands. The reason is they likely did not have actual ownership, but instead leased the land from the state. This is not unique to the Palestinians. In truth, most Israelis live on land owned by the state and leased for 99 years.
In 1967, Israel conquered, the Sinai, the Golan Heights, Gaza and the West Bank. Israel extended the same land laws that have been in place since the Ottomans. It became the sole responsibility for administration of those lands, though the international community expected Israel to maintain the status quo. Given the recent history of conflict, Israel felt it was her responsibility to create a more defensible border and began settlements initially in the Jordan Valley and hills surrounding Jerusalem. These settlements, even with the most liberal governments, have not been considered negotiable.
Over the intervening years, various governments have started and stopped settlement activity. Successive government have used settlements as negotiating tools, pressuring the Palestinians to come to the table, but when they did, Israel did not hesitate to abandon the settlements in return for peace. The first such instance was the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Agreement. Despite widespread protests, the Begin government forcibly removed 2500 Israeli citizens from Yamit per the terms of the agreement.
In 1993, the Rabin government signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. The guiding principle was “land for peace”. Throughout the negotiations, Palestinian terrorist continued their assault against Israeli citizens. Despite the deaths of over 300 Israelis, the talks continued. Ehud Barak continued the negotiations and offered 92% of the West Bank and a symbolic foothold in eastern Jerusalem. The majority of Israelis were shocked, but despite the offer, Arafat and the Palestinian Authority rejected the offer and instead launched the Second Intifada which resulted in over 1100 Israeli deaths from terrorism.
Even with negative results from the “land for peace” formula, one of Israel’s most hawkish leaders, Ariel Sharon, Israel withdrew all its citizens from the Gaza Strip in 2005 with hopes that Palestinians would seize this gesture, and create an enclave that might inspire Arabs in the West Bank to follow. More than 8000 settlers in 21 settlements were evacuated in an effort to make peace. Again, the Palestinians rejected the olive branch and pursued war. Since the withdrawal, Israel and Hamas have fought three times resulting in thousands of deaths and horrific destruction.
Given the willingness of successive Israeli governments, both right and left wing, to trade land and settlements for peace, it is reasonable to assume that the settlements in the West Bank are not obstacles to peace. To the contrary, settlements have ultimately pressured the Palestinians to act with a greater sense of urgency for fear of reaching a point of no return. Israel has always insisted on bilateral negotiations, accepting no outside interference, so when the UN or the European Union give false hope to the Palestinians, it is actually counterproductive. Friday’s UN Security Council resolution will now make Israel feel isolated, and likely become more entrenched.
In his final days, Obama has driven a wedge between the US and one of its closest friends, while at the same time creating an environment of distrust that decreases the likelihood of peace in the near future. The damage he has done out of petty spite is incalculable, and we may not know the extent for some time. This is Obama’s legacy.