When a settlement freeze is anything but

by Yaniv Reich on November 25, 2009

One of the biggest absurdities of Netanyahu’s steadfast refusal to agree a settlement freeze is that his government surely knows—indeed it must know—that they could have decided in favor of a “settlement freeze” that put nearly no restrictions whatsoever on the continued colonization of Palestine. And even this was too much for Israeli fanatics.

First, some historical precedent for settlement non-freezes. Many commentators in Israel and the US have argued in favor of a freeze on the legal grounds established by Yitchak Rabin, who agreed (in 1992) to limit Israeli colonization under George H.W. Bush’s threat to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees. Although widely hailed, this was significantly more than an empty gesture, as Rabin made clear himself. It was a deliberate smokescreen:

“Look, I do not know what you mean when you say settlement freeze, when we are talking of the continued construction of 11,000 units in the territories,” he said. “I do not remember a time when, even after canceling the construction of some 6,000 to 7,000 housing units, such a drive ever took place. . . . The Arabs are very critical of the United States in view of the fact that, the way they see it, not only is there no settlement freeze, there is even a hastened pace of construction when compared to two-and-one-half years ago. . . . The construction of 11,000 units continues. Is this a freeze?”

The data bear out Rabin’s argument. In the following graph of settlement population growth, one can see clearly that there was at the time zero reduction in settler population growth, despite the fact that Rabin promised a freeze and Bush delivered the money.

Settler Population Growth

Settler Population Growth (Source: Peace Now)

And the Rabin case of settlement intransigence is not the first in Israel’s history. In 1977, the right-wing Menachem Begin surprised Jimmy Carter by announcing a moratorium on new settlement construction for three months. The primary effect of this agreement, however, was to entrench in US and Israeli policy the notion of “natural growth”, a concept we still hear from Netanyahu and friends to a nauseating degree. As argued by the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), a Washington-based think-tank:

Israel’s commitment to a moratorium did not constrain settlement but rather established categories of expansion implicitly endorsed by Washington. The temporary moratorium on new settlements notwithstanding, the Begin government continued to “thicken” and “strengthen” settlements, at times establishing new sites kilometers away from existing colonies during the three month period. Carter administration officials were frustrated by Israel’s actions, but acquiesced.

Surely, the Netanyahu government knows this history. Despite that knowledge, they still felt compelled to dig in their heels and call the Obama administration’s bluff. And like the Carter and Bush administrations from earlier periods, which similarly caved under Israeli peace-killing, Hillary Clinton was there to drool all over herself in praise of Netanyahu’s “unprecedented” restraint that was anything but restraining.

When you hear Netanyahu announce his new 10 month settlement freeze, arguing “it will enable us to show the world this simple truth: The Government of Israel wants to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians, is taking practical steps to enter into negotiations and is very serious in its intention to advance peace,” do not be fooled. This so-called freeze is for a short period of time, specifically excludes the euphemistic and misleading “natural growth”, and deliberately removes from consideration East Jerusalem, certainly the most contentious settlement expansion and ethnic cleansing in all of historical Palestine, because Israel views it as a “separate issue”.

We must call on Obama not to be deceived by this tired historical trick. And we must call on Israeli leaders to end unconditionally and completely and without hesitation the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine, irrespective of Netanyahu’s manipulations.

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