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Israeli Settlers Race to Sabotage US Post-War Plan for Gaza

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Secretary of State Blinken stresses Arab leaders’ consensus on a Palestinian state for post-Israel-Hamas war peace. Success hinges on curbing Israeli settlement expansion. The Biden administration must leverage aid to pressure for a two-state solution, echoing actions from 1992.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken says all the Arab leaders he met with on his latest whirlwind Middle East tour agree with the United States that a Palestinian state is the sine quo non for any peace plan following a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. It has zero chance of success, however, unless the Biden administration is ready for a showdown with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the accelerating campaign by Israeli settlers to incorporate the West Bank into Israel proper. 

Peace Now, an Israeli watchdog group, has issued a report noting an “unmatched surge in settlement activity” since the onset of the war on October 7.

Surge in Settlement Activity 

Peace Now, an Israeli watchdog group, has issued a report noting an “unmatched surge in settlement activity” since the onset of the war on October 7. In just three months, the group has recorded what it termed “a record number” of nine new so-called outposts, tiny encampments that serve as incubators for new settlements. Settlers have also been busy paving new roads and putting up fences instead of structures for future outposts. This activity comes on top of what the Times of Israelcalled 2023 a banner year for the Netanyahu government, turning 22 outposts into officially recognized settlements. 

There are now 146 officially sanctioned settlements polka-dotted across the West Bank and in 14 “neighborhoods” inside East Jerusalem, housing a total of nearly 700,000 Israelis, according to Peace Now. The group published the names and locations of all of them in a special report earlier this month. In addition, there are 114 outposts on the way to becoming settlements. The 465,000 Israeli West Bank settlers live in isolated communities protected by the Israeli army among 2.8 million Palestinians, who make up 86 percent of the total population there. 

Netanyahu, who depends for his political survival on ultranationalist parties in his coalition government, particularly the Religious Zionist Party, has given free rein to their efforts to take over the territory, which they call by its Biblical names of Judea and Samaria. The leader of the Zionist Party, Bezalel Smotrich, and the finance minister, together with Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit Party, currently the national security minister, are leading the drive to accelerate settlements.    

There is much debate whether the Biden administration has any meaningful leverage over the Netanyahu government and, if it does, the political will to exercise it in a presidential election year.

There is much debate whether the Biden administration has any meaningful leverage over the Netanyahu government and, if it does, the political will to exercise it in a presidential election year. Yet, it probably has more real leverage right now than any Republican or Democratic administration has had in a long time. 

Netanyahu needs Washington and its wealthy Arab Gulf allies to provide the tens of billions of dollars that will be necessary to rebuild war-destroyed Gaza almost from the ground up. Blinken has told the Israeli prime minister publicly that neither this nor his hopes for Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel will be possible unless he agrees to a two-state solution. “We need to see the establishment of an independent Palestinian state,” Blinken said repeatedly and bluntly while in Israel for talks with the Israeli prime minister and his war cabinet. 

Biden Administration’s Leverage 

The key question is whether President Biden is up for a showdown with Netanyahu over devising what Blinken called “a practical pathway” to a Palestinian state. The two leaders are already and increasingly at odds over Israeli military tactics in Gaza that have caused a high death toll among Palestinian civilians, massive destruction of buildings and infrastructure, and the blocking of sufficient humanitarian aid into the enclave. In addition, Biden wants the Palestinian Authority governing parts of the West Bank to run Gaza in the post-war period, while Netanyahu is vehemently opposed to this.  

Just as questionable, however, is whether Netanyahu would ever agree to turn the screws on West Bank settlers and the ultra-nationalist parties he depends upon to stay in office.  

 Blinken indicated he is well aware of the obstacle the settlers pose to a two-state solution and Netanyahu’s refusal to do anything to rein them in. “Extremist settler violence carried out with impunity, settlement expansion, demolitions, evictions all make it harder…for Israel to achieve lasting peace and security,” he declared at a press conference following meetings with Netanyahu and his war cabinet.  

The question is what steps the Biden administration might take to pressure Netanyahu into ending these practices and curb the settler movement. 

The question is what steps the Biden administration might take to pressure Netanyahu into ending these practices and curb the settler movement. Only once has any US administration issued an ultimatum to achieve this objective. 

It happened back In February 1992 when then Secretary of State James A. Baker III was seeking to promote Israeli-Palestinian negotiations endangered by the expansion of settlements under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s government. At the time, Israel was looking for loan guarantees from the Bush administration to build housing for Jews streaming out of Russia in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. “This administration is ready to support loan guarantees for absorption assistance to Israel of up to $2 billion a year for five years,” he said, “provided though there is a halt or end to settlements activity.” The result was a temporary hiatus, long enough for Israel to get its loan guarantee. 

Possible Steps for Biden 

What steps could the Biden administration take today to achieve a “halt or end” to expanding settlements? It might suspend a fraction of the $3.8 billion in annual military aid to Israel. (Biden has already asked Congress to approve another $14 billion in emergency military aid for Israel.) But at a time when Israel is at war with Hamas, dedicated to destroying the Jewish state, such a move is certain to trigger an uproar from the powerful Israeli lobby in Washington and jeopardize its support for his reelection.  

Another step the Biden administration might take is to reverse itself and begin supporting UN resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza that Netanyahu vehemently opposes until he feels Hamas has been crushed both militarily and politically.  

The least costly to Biden politically would be to announce publicly that US involvement in any post-war plan to rule Gaza is conditioned upon an “end or halt” to the current campaign to expand settlements on the West Bank. In any case, such a step will become necessary for the success of any plan to establish a Palestinian state sooner or later. Leaders of the Arab Gulf states, which have the tens of billions of dollars required to rebuild Gaza, have made clear this is a precondition for them as well. 

It is time for Biden to take the kind of bold initiative Bush and Baker took in 1992. Otherwise, the lights will go out on a two-state solution for good.

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not express the official position of the Wilson Center. 

About the Author

David Ottaway image

David Ottaway

Middle East Fellow;
Former Washington Post Middle East Correspondent
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more