While all the world’s eyes were on Iran, I spent the last week or so with Brian Katulis (of the Center for American Progress) in Jersualem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Tel Aviv. We met with more than three dozen people, including Palestinian, Israeli, American, British and UN officials and ex-officials, civil society activists, journalists, and politicos. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it down to Gaza on this trip, but we did talk to key people coordinating and struggling to implement the humanitarian response for the US, the UK, and the UN. As per my usual approach to such trips, I didn't blog about it while I was there, partly because there wasn't a lot of free time and partly because I wanted to digest everything first. (And, in this case, partly so that the always-delightful "special" attention at Ben Gurion airport wouldn't have to be any more "special.")
We will soon be producing a more formal set of observations and recommendations, and I will also be blogging over the next few days about some key parts of the trip. We'll have a lot to say about the status of Palestinian institutional capacity, the security sector, the overarching context of the occupation, Gaza, and more. And it's going to take a few days to get back up to speed on the thousands upon thousands of emails, blog posts on my RSS feed, and backlogged work from the trip. But for now I just wanted to react to the Netanyahu government's decision to brazenly challenge Obama by authorizing new settlement construction north of Ramallah. The bottom line is that Obama needs to stand tough in the face of this first real challenge, or his strategy will likely fail comprehensively.
Rightly or wrongly, Obama has made the settlement issue a test of his credibility, and if he backs down then all the progress he has made will wash away instantly. That makes this a pivotal moment, whether or not an Obama administration focused on Iran wants it to be one. Most Palestinians, with their well-earned skepticism of American policy, expect Obama to back down. Most Israelis probably do as well. And that would be tragic, because without much publicity Obama's pressure has already started generating some important results on the ground -- not just Netanyahu's carefully hedged uttering of an emasculated two state formula, but the significant easing of checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank, the lifting of some of the more ludicrous parts of the blockade of Gaza, the release of Hamas prisoners (including its Parliamentarians) by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and reports that the Egyptians are planning an unveiling of a Hamas-Fatah unity government agreement on July 7.
The importance of this moment -- carefully chosen at a time when the U.S. is badly distracted by the events in Iran -- is enhanced by the fact that the proposed settlement expansion obviously has nothing to do with Israeli security. Nor does it have anything to do with the absurd "natural growth" argument, which everybody understands to be a joke (settlements have been expanding at a breakneck pace over the last few years, even as the Israelis were ostensibly negotiating in the Annapolis process, while the government continues to do everything it can to entice Israelis to move there). This is a political challenge, barely veiled, a bid to cut out Mitchell and Obama's legs, and everyone will take it as such.
It's important to again emphasize the crucial context here: Obama's pressure has actually been quietly working. Lost in the public pyrotechnics over Netanyahu’s grudging utterance of an emasculated two state phraseology, Israel has over the last few weeks actually been making serious changes to the checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank and to the blockade of Gaza. The siege of cities such as Nablus has been lifted, major choke-points on key West Bank roads have been significantly opened, and journalists report being able to drive to Jenin without being stopped at a checkpoint. This is new.
For most Palestinians, the more than 600 major West Bank checkpoints and roadblocks are their top daily complaint, the major obstacle to travel and internal commerce, and a major ongoing humiliation. Every Palestinian we spoke with mentioned the checkpoints as the single most important short-term issue Obama could take on. So did every American and international aid official, as well as even most of the Israelis. Easing internal travel and the checkpoints should have a major positive impact on the every day lives and economic prospects of Palestinians, which could start generating some enthusiasm for a resumed peace process. Of course, they also emphasized as firmly as possible that this would only be welcomed if accompanied by a clear political horizon, and not as an alternative to it (Netanyahu's 'economic peace' argument has few takers even in Ramallah).
That Israel has quietly made significant changes to the checkpoints in the last few weeks -- after ignoring six years worth of Road Map commitments, snubbing Tony Blair and the Quartet's persistent demands, dismissing the recommendations of the World Bank and other international development agencies, and greatly expanding them even while negotiating during the Annapolis process -- suggests that Obama's tough love approach has actually been the only one able to achieve real results. It hasn't gotten much publicity, and it's only a minor thing in the wider context of the occupation, the battle over the settlements, the tortuous politics of the final status issues, the trends in Israeli politics and the disastrous Palestinian political divisions. But it shows that there is already something to show for his policy and that it's worth fighting for. But all those developments could disappear in a heartbeat if the Israelis decide that they have gotten the better of the Obama administration.
Obama has to stand tough on the settlement expansions if he hopes to not squander the tentative gains of the last few weeks -- and, more broadly, to see his administration's credibility on Israeli-Palestinian issues shattered forever. This is going to be hard to do, since the administration is badly distracted by the events in Iran and might not see this as a good time or an important enough issue to pick a costly fight with Netanyahu. But that would be a huge mistake, because credibility lost here will be very, very hard to recover. Mitchell's abrupt cancelation of a meeting with Netanyahu should only be the beginning: he and Obama need to be ready to take concrete steps to force Israel to back down, or see all of the tentative progress they've seen made evaporate. I think they may surprise a lot of people.
note: formatting problems fixed, I hope.