Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped from the frying pan into the fire this weekend, when she sparked a controversy regarding U.S. policy toward Israeli settlements right after some tough days of public and private diplomacy in Pakistan. But was the controversy as serious as it seemed? And what does it means for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts? Here, a fact check on some settlement myths and misconceptions.
1. What is the significance of Clinton's linguistic acrobatics?
Standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night in Jerusalem, the secretary seemed unequivocally to line up with the Israeli leader in relation to the ongoing dispute over the settlements. Clinton described Israel's offer of a policy of settlement "restraint" (i.e., not freeze) as "unprecedented." Prime Minister Netanyahu looked pleased as punch as Clinton placed the dead cat firmly at the Palestinians' door.
By the time Clinton landed in Morocco for bilateral and regional meetings that included Arab leaders, it was clear that these statements had stirred quite an uproar and were being interpreted as a recalibration of U.S. policy towards Israeli settlements, or even a capitulation. In Cairo, in June, the president had been unequivocal, declaring "it is time for these settlements to stop." A week earlier, Clinton herself had explained the call for a stop to settlements as not being open to interpretation -- "not some settlements ... not natural growth."
Monday, Clinton rushed to correct the impression of a policy shift, delivering remarks with the Moroccan foreign minister at her side in which she described Israel's restraint policy as falling "far short" of America's position or preference. She also reiterated America's 40-year opposition to Israeli settlement policy and rejection of "the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" -- all things that she had failed to mention at the presser in Jerusalem. The Obama team's image of credibility and competence had taken a serious hit. The Arab League's Secretary General, Amr Moussa, went on record to say "failure is in the atmosphere ... all of us are deeply disappointed" and that "we're not impressed".
In a sense, Clinton's prevarications aren't hard to understand. Since September's U.N. General Assembly tri-lateral meeting, the administration has been trying to extricate itself from Netanyahu's blunt refusal to meet the U.S. demand for a settlement freeze. The Obama team chose not to escalate in the face of this rejectionism from its ally in Jerusalem. The U.S. message to both sides became: "Good Israeli progress on the settlements -- we expect more, but in the meantime, let's re-launch negotiations." Clinton was in effect reiterating that message with greater force during this trip -- and perhaps venting frustration at the Palestinians' lack of enthusiasm for this formula. However, that does not change the bottom line: The United States created an expectation for a settlement freeze, did not meet it, and is now paying a price of diminished standing in the region.
2. Was Clinton right in describing the Israeli concessions as "unprecedented"?
One of the more criticized aspects of Clinton's remarks was her repetition of Israel's policy of "restraint" toward settlement growth as "unprecedented" -- suggesting that the U.S. condoned that policy. Technically, yes, the policy is unprecedented -- Israel has not before publicly delineated a limited number of specific housing units (only those already under construction) beyond which it would not build in the West Bank.
In terms of substantive impact, use of the term "unprecedented" is on flimsier ground. The approximately 3,000 housing units that Israel will continue to build is par for the course for its annual settlement expansion. And of course, the exclusion of East Jerusalem renders the arrangement a nonstarter to the Palestinian and Arab side, since no two-state solution can be envisaged without a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.
The arrangement could, however, become genuinely unprecedented if the 3,000 units already under construction were explicitly acknowledged as the final settlement expansion of any kind, full stop. That may be the logic of the U.S. effort, but it has not yet been unequivocally articulated.