When I first heard of President Obama’s announcement to push for a complete freeze of Israeli settlements in 2009, I was working in East Jerusalem. Ziad, one of my editors, was ecstatic with the news, forcing every employee within the office to view the video clips of Obama’s declaration. Perhaps it was silly or naive of me to expect progress to occur. With the speech, sure enough, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promptly pushed further illegal construction projects within East Jerusalem and the West Bank, refusing to be persuaded by the U.S., the European Union and the international community as a whole. With little success to speak of, Obama quickly folded, and by the following year the idea of a settlement freeze seemed like a long-forgotten dream. What is not surprising of this story is the right-wing rejection of any progress on settlements as demonstrated by the Netanyahu administration’s actions and behaviors. What is surprising, however, is that Obama may have a second chance to push the settlement issue and thus the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a whole. And better yet, this second time around looks far more likely to succeed, an achievement that would surely place Obama’s name in the chronicles of great leaders before him.
To start, why should we care? To those familiar with the subject, I have probably spoken a cardinal sin, but I believe that for the vast majority of uninformed Americans, it is an important question that needs to be explained. We should care about illegal construction of settlements within the West Bank and East Jerusalem because it represents a violation of human rights and even amounts to genuine war crimes as reaffirmed last month by the U.N. Human Rights Council. Forcing families off their land and constructing on said land does not make the land yours, a simple explanation with which I assume most can agree. So why has this issue become controversial? After all, we are talking about basic human rights — basic human rights as described by the Geneva Convention, which were developed in the aftermath of World War II.
So why should any of us be optimistic about progress now? Certainly there are plenty of problems remaining to be pessimistic about with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, yet on settlements, a consensus is emerging. After a surprise turnout in the Israeli elections, the left and center-left showed strong support, forcing the Israeli Right to rethink its policies after losing 11 seats in the Knesset. As The Economist noted this past week, “Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and opposition leader who puts peace with the Palestinians at the top of her agenda, agreed to join a coalition led by the prime minister, [Benjamin] Netanyahu. … Ms. Livni will be justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians.” Furthermore, according to the prime minister, peace negotiations can only rekindle once settlement construction freezes, an extremely fair demand considering that the land they are negotiating about is actively being taken away and built on. Finally, there is Obama. With his upcoming trip to Israel, the first of his entire presidency, including stops in Ramallah and Amman, Jordan, it is clear he has a message for the region. Secretary of State John Kerry has clearly stated that he wishes to restart peace negotiations and has already called both Israeli and Palestinian leaders within the capacities of his new office. And with no re-election to worry about, there appears to be no better time for Obama to stand his ground once again. This could include, perhaps, putting more strings on the estimated $3 billion in military aid we provide the state each year (the stick) or exchanging increased assistance on matters ranging from Iranian nuclear ambitions to Syrian border security for concrete actions on the settlement freeze and peace negotiations (the carrot).
If Obama can at least get Israel to agree to a settlement freeze and thus get the two sides at the negotiation table once more, it will certainly represent a massive success in light of the black stain of his first term. But it cannot end there. A freeze to settlements is where we start, an obvious universal cause for the sake of moral decency and the rule of law, but it cannot and will not end until a full two-state solution has been produced (a proposition that both sides have agreed to numerous times, including Netanyahu). A freeze to settlements ensures that the situation on the ground does not become worse, yet in order for things to get better, it will require even greater courage and commitment. Second terms do not occur often, nor do second chances. Use it, freeze the settlements, and help to create a more peaceful and just Middle East.
Clifford Drake is a junior majoring in international economics and political science at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org