The Israeli government is acting like a deer caught in the headlights. The Obama administration's persistent demands that all settlement activities be brought to a complete halt present a dilemma for Benjamin Netanyahu and his partners in government. On the one hand, should they continue to expand settlement activities under the rubric of "natural growth" (i.e. constructing more housing units in existing settlements), they are likely to confront mounting diplomatic pressure from Washington. Netanyahu can pay a heavy price domestically for compromising Israel's most valuable alliance. On the other hand, should they enact a freeze on construction in all settlements, they would be shooting themselves in the foot. In effect, Likud and its other partners would be surrendering the settlers' vote (and campaign contributions) to even more hawkish parties.
This paradox has left Tel Aviv/Jerusalem in utter confusion. On Tuesday, June 23rd, the Israeli military radio announced that Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved the building of 300 residential units in Benjamin, a settlement to the west of Ramallah. Shortly after, the Israeli government denied the reports as baseless.
There also conflicting reports about why a planned meeting tomorrow, Thursday, in Paris between Netanyahu and George Mitchell was cancelled. Major Israeli newspaper, Yadiut Ahronout, claimed that Washington scrapped the meeting plans, because the Israeli government "did not do its settlement homework," as an anonymous senior American official supposedly put it. Hours later, a spokesman of the Israeli government said that Netanyahu asked for the meeting to be postponed, until he had "collected further information to present to Mitchell in a systematic manner." But, in the latest turn of events, Netanyahu aides say now that Ehud Barak would instead meet with Mithcell in Washington next week.
Meanwhile, Ian Kelly, a spokesperson for the State Department, emphasized the need for settlement freeze to be comprehensive. Yup, that's right... Not only would the Israeli government have to stop building in the West Bank, but they also need to stop building in East Jerusalem, presumed to be the future capital of Palestine. This might prove even trickier than the West Bank, given the strong emotional and religious attachment to the city as well as the presence of one of Israel's largest settlements Ma'lee Adumeem in the area. It is noteworthy that the recently-approved Israeli budget dedicates funds toward expanding settlements, including Ma'lee Adumeem.
Why are settlements bad? Not only have settlements dismembered the West Bank into unlivable cantons, where freedom of movement is highly curtailed, but they may also render the two-state solution, simply unfeasible. There will be too much population-mixing. The bi-national one-state solution would gain more credibility and urgency. I am not sure Netanyahu, or Livni for that matter, are willing to take that "risk."