Stopping the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem doesn’t assure an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, but it removes an important hurdle to such an accord.
After years of looking the other way while Israel built new and expanded existing settlements, the Obama administration has told Israel to stop. Two months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the administration wanted all settlement building to stop. “Not some settlement, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exemptions,” she added. Natural growth refers to Israel’s stance that settlements must be allowed to grow to accommodate the growth of families that live there.
Mideast envoy George Mitchell reiterated that position during a visit to Israel last week.
Israel has stepped up construction of housing on land in the West Bank and Jerusalem that it captured from the Palestinians in 1967. The international community considers these areas occupied by Israel, not part of the country. Palestinians want the occupied land for a future state as part of a two-state peace agreement.
The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has doubled since the mid-1990s and now stands at more than 300,000. Another 180,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem.
A current flash point is Israel’s determination to move forward with a 20-unit housing development on the site of the former Shepherd Hotel in East Jerusalem. The project had languished for years before the newly elected Israeli prime minister apparently pushed for its approval by local authorities recently. The U.S. has objected to the project, financed by a wealthy businessman in Miami, as have the European Union and Russia.
During Mr. Mitchell’s visit to Israel, activists set up a dozen new outposts, mainly tents, as a sign of their defiance of any freeze on settlement building.
While Israeli settlements are a barrier to peace talks, Israelis have a right to be skeptical. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005 as part of a move toward peace negotiations. Despite the return of this land to Palestinians, violence soon erupted again and the peace process has since languished.
Peace talks have gone on in fits and starts for decades. To move the process forward again, settlement building must stop.