Why the Ignorant Assault Upon Israeli Settlements?

Palestinian schoolgirls are seen walking near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ma'ale Adumim (in the background) in November 2013. Elliott Abrams writes that the U.S. State Department is accusing Israel of no longer being interested in a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Ammar Awad/reuters

This article was first published on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

This week the State Department engaged in a remarkable assault on Israel. Both in tone and in content, it marks a new hostility—and plenty of sheer ignorance.

The comment was titled "Recent Israeli Settlement Announcements," and the full text ran as follows:

We are deeply concerned by reports today that the Government of Israel has published tenders for 323 units in East Jerusalem settlements. This follows Monday's announcement of plans for 770 units in the settlement of Gilo.

We strongly oppose settlement activity, which is corrosive to the cause of peace. These steps by Israeli authorities are the latest examples of what appears to be a steady acceleration of settlement activity that is systematically undermining the prospects for a two-state solution.

In just the past few weeks, we have seen reports of the advancement of plans for 531 units in Ma'ale Adumim, 19 in Har Homa, 120 in Ramot, and 30 in Pisgat Ze'ev; the advancement of a plan to retroactively legalize an outpost near Ramallah; and the issuance of tenders for 42 units in Kiryat Arba.

We are also concerned about recent increased demolitions of Palestinian structures in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which reportedly have left dozens of Palestinians homeless, including children.‎ More than 650 Palestinian structures have been demolished this year, with more Palestinian structures demolished in the West Bank and East Jerusalem thus far than in all of 2015.

As the recent Quartet Report highlighted, this is part of an ongoing process of land seizures, settlement expansion, legalizations of outposts, and denial of Palestinian development that risk entrenching a one-state reality of perpetual occupation and conflict. We remain troubled that Israel continues this pattern of provocative and counterproductive action, which raises serious questions about Israel's ultimate commitment to a peaceful, negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.


This statement not only protests certain recent activities (of which more in a moment) but actually accuses Israel of no longer being interested in a negotiated settlement.

The history of Obama administration efforts gives the lie to that accusation: It's quite clear that the Palestinians have refused to come to the table repeatedly and ultimately defeated Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to get something going.

Here is what Obama negotiator Martin Indyk said in 2014, as reported in Haaretz:

"Netanyahu moved to the zone of possible agreement. I saw him sweating bullets to find a way to reach an agreement," said Indyk. [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen], for his part, did not show flexibility, Indyk added.

"We tried to get Abu Mazen to the zone of possible agreement but we were surprised to learn he had shut down. We were ready to go beyond policy positions the U.S. had taken on the core issues to bridge the gaps and resolve it, and therefore there was something in it for him—and he didn't answer us. Abbas [effectively] checked out of the talks in mid-February," said Indyk.

So Abbas checks out, Abbas destroys Obama's and Kerry's efforts, and the State Department two years later is saying Israel's commitment is in doubt.

Why? Because this construction is going to make the two-state solution impossible and "risks entrenching a one-state reality."

That conclusion reflects pure ignorance. The position of the United States is, and has been under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, that Israel and the Palestinians should engage in land swaps as part of a final status agreement. Just as one example, Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2011 that "the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps."

Swapping for what? Swapping for major Israeli settlement blocs, such as Ma'ale Adumim, population 40,000. The notion that peace is more distant if Israel builds in Ma'ale Adumim is ridiculous.

Or how about construction in Gilo? Same: This is a Jerusalem neighborhood of 40,000. Construction there is no obstacle to a two-state solution.

Same for Har Homa. In 1997, the United States vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that construction in Har Homa stop—and it might be recalled that the president at that time was a Democrat and was the husband of the current Democratic nominee. Besides, the State Department's criticism regarding Har Homa is about 19 units. 19 units!

One might wonder if the State Department has no other matters to concern it these days. Checking its website, I find no similar five-paragraph attacks or critiques on any subject. It seems that nothing is as dangerous to the world as construction in Israel and in settlements.

The department's criticism also cherry-picks numbers to make its argument that there "appears to be a steady acceleration of settlement activity that is systematically undermining the prospects for a two-state solution."

In June, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics reported that "the number of housing starts in West Bank settlements for the first quarter of 2016 dropped by 53 percent compared to the same period last year," as The Jerusalem Post reported. On the other hand, "the number of completed homes in Judea and Samaria rose by 14.9 percent in the first quarter of 2016, for a total of 610 units, compared with 531 such structures in the first three months of 2015."

Ahh, complexity. Housing starts fell; housing completions rose; and then there is the subject of permits for planning and construction, which very often do not result in actual construction.

Note that the occasion of the State Department's outrage was that the government of Israel "has published tenders" for new construction—not begun, much less completed, the construction. Those tenders may result in actual permits for construction and may produce the housing units, or may not—and the numbers may change.

It is also pretty clear that Netanyahu's policy has been to depress the amount of construction in outlying areas of the West Bank, a policy that has made settler groups angry and that might, in a different world, have led the State Department to thank him. But not in this world, where housing construction is a threat to peace.

The department's criticism is politically quite stupid. It continues the Obama administration's absolute refusal to distinguish between construction in isolated settlements in the West Bank in areas that must become part of Palestine if a state of Palestine is ever created; construction in major blocs that Israel will obviously keep in land swaps; and construction in Jerusalem. It treats them all equally as the "steady acceleration of settlement activity that is systematically undermining the prospects for a two-state solution."

Moreover, it refers to construction in Jerusalem, Israel's capital, as settlement construction and refers to Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as "East Jerusalem settlements." There are no "East Jerusalem settlements"; the term settlement loses meaning when applied to Jews building homes in their nation's capital city.

Why is this approach stupid? For two reasons.

First, it's false: Construction in outlying areas of the West Bank may indeed appear to be a problem in creating a Palestinian state, but construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem is not, nor is construction in major blocs that Israel will keep.

Second, this failure to make distinctions means Israelis will disregard U.S. complaints instead of listening to them. If the State Department criticized construction by settler groups in remote West Bank areas, it would actually have most Israelis on its side. But when it treats Jerusalem neighborhoods and a place like Ma'ale Adumim as indistinguishable from any and every settler activity no matter how remote, Israelis will mostly shrug and wonder why the Americans are so dumb.

And that's actually a good question. Why are we, or, rather, why is the State Department? I suppose State is just following orders from the White House, but that only raises the stakes; it does not answer the question.

Who is the intended audience for this attack on Israel? If the answer is Israelis and their government, it will fail due to its continuing refusal to make logical distinctions. If the answer is Americans, including members of Congress, then this attack—launched by a lame duck administration during this convention week—will have zero effect.

So here's a theory: The intended audience is European governments and others around the world. This kind of assault makes their own assaults on Israel easier: They can see us and raise us in the level of criticism of Israel.

They can be encouraged in planning attacks on Israel in the U.N. General Assembly in September. They can offer six-paragraph screeds where they explain how these new housing units threaten peace, security and the two-state solution.

The State Department statement came the same week that the Palestinian Authority announced it would sue the British government over the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which supported a Jewish national home in the Holy Land. It is true that this was in many ways a comic announcement, but it displayed a complete lack of serious intent to move forward toward peace or peace negotiations. In that sense, it is completely consistent with the way the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have behaved throughout the Obama years.

With all the misery and bloodshed in the Middle East; with all the violent attacks Israel must face; with chaos in Iraq and Syria; with a PLO thinking not about talks but about lawsuits against the U.K., it's remarkable that housing construction strikes State as the critical problem we face.

Meanwhile, a Saudi delegation visited Jerusalem this week. As The Times of Israel reported, "A retired Saudi general visited Israel this week, heading a delegation of academics and businessmen seeking to encourage discussion of the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative."

When the Saudis have a more realistic approach to Israel than the U.S. State Department, American policy is far out of whack.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.