The battle over what a “settlement freeze” means

When Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington last month, Israeli media reported he was quite shocked at the reception he received in his closed-door meetings with Congress. It appeared the Obama administration had lined up fellow Democrats to make sure Netanyahu heard the same message as Obama had conveyed with respect to Israeli settlements and support for the two-state solution.

By last Monday, however, reports of cracks in the Democratic solidarity started to appear. Politico’s Ben Smith filed a report under the headline “Democrats pressure Barack Obama on Israel.” Smith’s article suggested Israeli supporters in the Congress were pushing back against the administration’s tough talk. Smith began with Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Democrat from Nevada, who manages to represent libertine, if not liberal, Las Vegas, while at the same time serving as the strongest ally in Congress of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America.

“My concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute. I think it would serve America’s interest better if we were pressuring the Iranians to eliminate the potential of a nuclear threat from Iran, and less time pressuring our allies and the only democracy in the Middle East to stop the natural growth of their settlements.”

“When Congress gets back into session the administration is going to hear from many more members than just me.”

It is not surprising that Berkley was among the first to spring to the Netanyahu government’s defense. According to Ha’aretz’s Akiva Eldar, Berkley once reprimanded Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat for using the term “occupation.” After all “this [Israel] is our country” and “we” won the war. When Erekat responded, “So what am I, if I am not a person living under occupation?” Berkley answered, “War booty.” [continued…]

What exactly was U.S.-Israel agreement on settlements?

West Bank settlements have long been a bone of contention between Israel and the United States, which views them as an obstacle to peace. Over the past few years, however, Israel tried to reach a tacit understanding with Washington on settlement expansion, which is now put to the test: President Barack Obama demands a complete and utter construction freeze, whereas Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists on building in settlement blocs, as his predecessors Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert during George W. Bush’s term in office.

The settlement controversy reached its zenith at the twilight of Yitzhak Shamir’s government in 1992. Israel had asked for loan guarantees to help fund the absorption of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the recently collapsed Soviet Union. Then U.S. President George H.W. Bush conditioned the aid on a complete settlement freeze. Shamir was defiant, and Bush remained firm.

Yitzhak Rabin, who succeeded Shamir as prime minister, reached an oral agreement with Bush on the loan guarantees. Rabin promised that Israel would complete the housing units that were under construction and limit future construction in all settlements in the Jordan Valley and the Jerusalem area, which Rabin dubbed “security areas.” The New York Times reported that the construction would be for “natural growth” purposes, and would amount to building additional rooms in existing houses and infrastructure. In practice, Israel went far beyond that. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — It seems fitting if — as this report seems to imply — that it was the Times that coined this pernicious, contrived and utterly misleading phrase, “natural growth”. They borrowed some well-tested Madison Avenue wisdom that it’s easier to see any piece of crap if you call it “natural”. But as The Forward noted in an editorial last week, there is in fact nothing “natural” here:

    The Israeli government’s defense of “natural growth” masks its true intent. Ministers say that families deserve the right to stay in their communities as their broods increase, and that is why settlements should be allowed to add homes, schools and synagogues. That’s a “right” enjoyed by no one else in Israel, or the United States, for that matter.

Israel ministry wages settlement war against U.S.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai has begun to make good on a pledge to exploit all the resources of his ministry, “its branches and its influences over local government” to expand settlements in the territories.

Yishai, who is also chairman of Shas, made the promise last Thursday to the heads of the Yesha Council of settlements. His party is concerned by the freeze on construction that has been in effect since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office, which Yishai said is “drying out” the settlements. [continued…]

Gas discovery changes Israel’s energy picture

A huge natural gas discovery 50 miles off the Israeli coast at Haifa could potentially meet Israel’s energy needs for 20 years once it eventually comes online. In January 2009, a consortium led by U.S. energy exploration company Noble Energy announced the discovery of three massive gas fields, with one of the group’s partners calling the find “one of the biggest in the world” that represented a “historic landmark in the economic dependence of Israel.”…

The huge Tamar prospect has almost certainly averted a major energy crisis for Israel within the next decade. Israel currently imports 85 percent of its energy. With no oil of its own, it must import supplies from as far afield as Russia, Norway, Mexico and West Africa. A deal cut with Egypt in 2005 guaranteed natural gas imports from the Nile Delta for 15 years, starting from last summer.

But the only other natural gas field of significance in the region is the 1.4 trillion cubic feet field discovered by the British Gas Group off the coast of Gaza in 2000. Any hope of gas from that source continues to be paralyzed by the Israeli-Palestinian political stand-off. Both BG and the Palestinians, to whom the field mostly belongs, are anxious to start pumping gas, but Israel refuses to buy it for fear that the proceeds will ultimately finance Hamas’ arms purchases. A recent bid by the BG Group to direct the Palestinian reserves to Egypt was blocked by Israel….

A potential hitch has arisen, however, in the claim by Lebanese authorities that at least part of the Tamar gas field might lie within a common basin straddling the two countries’ territorial waters. Lebanese Energy Minister Alain Tabourian wants the Tamar project formally registered with the United Nations and a study of the extent of the basins carried out.

One of the partners in the U.S.-Israeli consortium denied those claims, saying “the entire area of the license was within territorial waters of the state of Israel.” But with more than $15 billion of energy resources at stake, and with at least three years before the gas comes online, the huge find could prove yet another flashpoint for local conflict. [continued…]

Obama, the Holocaust and the Palestinians

The line in last Friday’s New York Times summed it up: Some Israelis and their American supporters are furious with President Barack Obama, the Times reported, because they saw his Cairo speech as “elevating the Palestinians to equal status.” And those who would be threatened by Palestinians being viewed as equal human beings to Israelis may have reason to be concerned. That’s because whatever its policy implications — and the jury is very much still out on those — Obama’s Cairo speech marked a profound conceptual shift in official Washington’s discourse on the nature and causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of America’s obligations to each side. So much so that one as prone pessimism as I was before the speech was forced to note that the reason Israel’s more right-wing supporters are worried is that, rhetorically at least, Obama was trying to move the U.S. position towards one of an honest broker. [continued…]

Netanyahu convinced Obama seeks clash with Israel to appease Arabs

Political sources close to Netanyahu say that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Obama’s senior political consultant David Axelrod are behind the clash between the administration and Israel.

Israel historically has depended on the White House to balance the consensus of officials in the state and defense departments; this consensus usually leans toward the Arab side.

Israeli officials say that under Obama, the White House has become the main problem in relations. [continued…]

Jews gone wild: Why camcorders and booze don’t mix

The night before Barack Obama thrilled Cairo, two cameramen strolled through downtown Jerusalem and filmed a handful of drunken American kids doing their best David Duke impressions. Forty-eight hours later, the video has gone viral, linked from a hundred political blogs, and is circling the internet at a critical velocity on a mission to humiliate the Jewish people.

As someone who lives on and off in the American bubble in Tel Aviv and came to Israel on a Birthright tour like some of the kids in the video may have, this is embarrassing, shocking, bizarre, but familiar. And as someone who spent many nights grimacing at similar overheard conversations from American Jews in town for the week from Long Island, the booze-fueled hubris and uber-Zionism is not so strange at all. In the Jewish homeland for the first time, on a free trip, fleetingly experiencing a place gripped by a visceral realism and powerful sense of purpose, it’s easy to let the beer overtake you. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Editors of the PEP Huffington Post should take note: Max Blumenthal’s video might have been too provocative for the tender sensibilities of HuffPo’s staff and readers but apparently Israelis and other readers of Haaretz were deemed capable of handling it even while being told that the video was on “a mission to humiliate the Jewish people.”

Should the Jewish people be humiliated by the video? Of course not. It’s not the video, stupid — it’s the people in it!

As for the acronym I just used — PEP — although I generally loathe acronyms, this one needs to be repeated far and wide. PEP stands for “Progressive Except for Palestine” and Philip Weiss has been doing a great job of pinning the label on the guilty.

Huge campaign rallies snarl Tehran

A pair of sprawling demonstrations here brought the capital of Iran virtually to a standstill on Monday, with followers of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main electoral challenger struggling to demonstrate their street following ahead of presidential elections on Friday.

The demonstrations were the largest gatherings here in more than a decade, veteran political observers said.

Iranian elections always bring a loosening of the rules on public speech and behavior, but many say this year’s election is different, in part because of the social crackdown of the past four years under Mr. Ahmadinejad.

“What’s happening now is more than what should happen before an election,” said Mashalah Shamsolvaezin, a political commentator and former director of several reformist newspapers. “This is an expression of protest and dissatisfaction by people. They are venting their frustration and feeling very powerful.” [continued…]

Lebanon’s election surprise

After a victory for the Hizbollah-led opposition had been widely anticipated, a constellation of factors tipped the balance in the March 14 coalition’s favour bringing an end to the jinx of Western support, at least for now.

An election-eve warning from Lebanon’s Maronite Christian patriarch who warned that the country faced a threat to its existence may also have been decisive in promoting fear of the Islamist group and its allies.

As The New York Times noted: “for the first time in a long time, being aligned with the United States did not lead to defeat in the Middle East. And since Lebanon has always been a critical testing ground, that could mark a possibly significant shift in regional dynamics with another major election, in Iran, just four days away. [continued…]

Al Qaida plays key role on both sides of Pakistan-Afghan border

When a wave of 11 suicide bombers attacked this Afghan provincial capital in mid-May — among them several men dressed head to toe in blue burqas — panicked residents fled into their homes to avoid the street battles between the killers and local security forces. Twenty locals died in the melee.

That so many bombers could slip into town from North Waziristan in neighboring Pakistan on a single operation testified to the rising level of violence in Afghanistan, and the U.S. military said that al Qaida is playing a critical role in financing suicide bombings and other attacks on U.S. and NATO forces.

However, the relatively low death toll in the Khost assault indicated that the attackers’ preparation was deficient, at least by comparison with far more devastating suicide bombings in Iraq. [continued…]

North Korean labor camps a ghastly prospect for U.S. journalists

North Korea’s sentencing of two American TV journalists to 12 years of hard labor Monday could imperil the Obama administration’s already difficult goal of curtailing the authoritarian nation’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

If no deal is reached, the two women face a grim future in a brutal prison system notorious for its lack of adequate food and medical supplies and its high death rate.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for San Francisco-based Current TV, were convicted by the nation’s top Central Court of an unspecified “grave crime” against the hard-line regime after they were arrested in March along the Chinese-North Korean border while reporting a story on human trafficking. [continued…]

CIA urges judge to keep Bush-era documents sealed

The Obama administration objected yesterday to the release of certain Bush-era documents that detail the videotaped interrogations of CIA detainees at secret prisons, arguing to a federal judge that doing so would endanger national security and benefit al-Qaeda’s recruitment efforts.

In an affidavit, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta defended the classification of records describing the contents of the 92 videotapes, their destruction by the CIA in 2005 and what he called “sensitive operational information” about the interrogations.

The forced disclosure of such material to the American Civil Liberties Union “could be expected to result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security by informing our enemies of what we knew about them, and when, and in some instances, how we obtained the intelligence we possessed,” Panetta argued. [continued…]

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  1. Aditya

    This is Stratfor’s take on Obama’s decision to bring up the settlements issue instead of, say, the criminal blockade of Gaza. It’s an nteresting read, although I’m not sure if the author is taking everything into consideration, like things in some of the articles posted above.

    Some highlights:
    “Obama has positioned the settlement issue in such a way that it would be difficult for him to back down.
    “Therefore, Obama has decided to create a crisis with Israel. He has chosen a subject on which Republican and Democratic administrations have had the same formal position. He has also picked a subject that does not affect Israeli national security in any immediate sense (he has not made demands for changes of policy toward Gaza, for example). Obama struck at an issue where he had precedent on his side, and where Israel’s immediate safety is not at stake. He also picked an issue on which he would have substantial support in the United States, and he has done this to have a symbolic showdown with Israel. The more Netanyahu resists, the more Obama gets what he wants.
    “If Obama can force Netanyahu to concede on the settlements issue, then he will break the back of the Israeli right and open the door to a rightist-negotiated settlement of the two-state solution.
    “Obama has picked a topic on which he has political room for maneuver and on which Netanyahu is politically locked in.

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