It didn’t take long for Benjamin Netanyahu to find a reason to rebuke Barack Obama publicly. After the White House demanded an end to settlement growth and expansion of Israeli areas of Jerusalem and adherence to the “road map” long abandoned by both sides, the Israeli Prime Minister told the American President to butt out of Israel’s internal affairs:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday rebuffed U.S. calls for a full settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank and vowed not to accept limits on building of Jewish enclaves within Jerusalem.
The note of defiance set the stage for a possible showdown with U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, which, in talks with Netanyahu in Washington last week, pressed for a halt to all settlement activity, including natural growth, as called for under a long-stalled peace “road map.”
“The demand for a total stop to building is not something that can be justified and I don’t think that anyone here at this table accepts it,” Netanyahu told his cabinet, referring to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, according to an official.
Netanyahu said Israel had no plans to set up any new West Bank settlements. But he told Obama, according to the official, that his government “does not accept limitations on building” within what Israel defines as its capital, the Jerusalem municipality, an area that includes Arab East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank captured in a 1967 Middle East war.
One can cheer this in at least one aspect. It sends notice to Obama that Israel will not allow itself to become a doormat to Obama’s ambitions in the Middle East. Israel has no reason to have any confidence in the road map, and Obama’s insistence on unilateral compliance is laughable just a few weeks after Hamas provoked a war in Gaza. The Palestinians have done nothing to comply with the road map requirements, and Israel rightly objects to being held accountable alone for its responsibilities.
On the other hand, the settlements will have to get re-thought in any two-state solution. No state can abide enclaves of non-sovereign territory within itself, especially with sovereignty given to a hostile state. Israel will likely have to trade land for the settlements in any peace accord, an outcome hotly opposed by Israel’s allies but the only outcome that has even a chance of long-term success in an eventual two-state solution — which is still officially the position of both Israel and the United States. Expanding the settlements now looks more like a play for a better land-swap deal at the end.
Netanyahu didn’t say he would expand the settlements, and that wasn’t really the thrust of his message anyway. He got elected in part to defend Israeli sovereignty, and the Obama administration will give him plenty of opportunities to do that. That could help boost Obama’s standing as a peacemaker in the region, too — a move that could benefit both men.