At last – coherent international policy on Israeli settlements?

The Obama administration’s Middle East policy is under construction. Despite Obama’s new tone, it is still too early to see specific policy changes on most of key regional issues.

The one exception to this has been US policy on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Here, in contrast to their predecessors, the Obama team have taken a firm line against any settlement expansion including “natural growth.” This has created a rift between the US and Israeli governments, which Israeli PM Netanyahu and his allies are finding hard to handle domestically. The US is nonetheless sticking to its line. Hillary Clinton has been clear not only in demanding a freeze, but also in stating that “any informal and oral agreements” between the Bush administration and Israel on settlements “did not become part of the official position of the United States government.”

The new US insistence on a total settlement freeze brings the US into line with longstanding EU and UN positions, so for the first time in years we are seeing solid, unified international policy this issue. In June, the Quartet urged Israel “to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth; to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001; and to refrain from provocative actions in East Jerusalem, including home demolition and evictions.” The European line on settlements is also being put forward in strong terms by the Swedish Presidency. Earlier this week, a senior Swedish foreign ministry official said that it was “inconceivable” for the international community to legitimize natural growth of the settler population.

So far so good: coherent international policy on an issue that constitutes a serious block to good faith negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and creates facts on the ground that inevitably influence final status discussions.

Then the European Commission steps in. The Commission’s technical office in Jerusalem commented a few days ago that Israeli settlements were “strangling the Palestinian economy” and forcing the Palestinian Authority to rely on foreign aid – much of which is provided by the European taxpayer. The Israeli government, very predictably, reacted strongly against the EC’s statement and summoned the head of the EU delegation. And now the Commissioner herself has issued a backing-down statement: her spokeswoman told the press that the EC office in Jerusalem had not used “wording that reflects the views of the European Commission or Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner…  Of course we are concerned about the negative effect that settlement policy has on the economic life of Palestinians, however the wording chosen in that statement does take it out of context… the reality is much more complex.”

It’s not that complex. The points made by the EC office in Jerusalem have been made many times before by the World Bank (which has issued detailed reports describing the detrimental effect of road closures on the Palestinian economy) and the UN (which has demonstrated the connection between such closures and settlements). Settlements do strangle the Palestinian economy, and their growth has to stop if the two-state solution is to remain viable.

The Commissioner’s intervention is not a big deal, because the EU has not changed its policy on settlements. It is just disappointing: the US administration has overcome domestic obstacles to stick to its line on settlements; but some members of the unwieldy European family have not apparently managed to overcome timidity in the face of Israeli demarches. It is time for the EU, and the EC, to state the facts about settlements and stand firmly behind a policy which they have, in any case, advocated for years.

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About Elizabeth Sellwood

Elizabeth Sellwood is non-resident fellow at the Center on International Cooperation. She is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has worked for several years in the Middle East region. She was Special Assistant to the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process from 2005-07, and prior to this she worked for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory. Between 2001-03 Elizabeth was an adviser to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the UK House of Commons. She also worked for Oxfam in the Balkans in the aftermath of the Kosovo war, and in 1995-99 held research positions at Chatham House and Cambridge University.