Last night Martin Indyk, now the chief assistant to Secretary of State Kerry in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, spoke at length to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. One account of his speech appears here at the Times of Israel's web site.
In the speech Indyk cast blame on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, for the breakdown of the talks. There are a couple of things to say about his remarks, beginning with his failure to cast any blame on the third side of the triangle: the United States, or more precisely Kerry and Indyk himself. Blaming his boss, and his boss's boss, President Obama, was more than could legitimately have been expected from Indyk, but a wee bit of introspection was not. Historians will not have to be consulted decades from now to analyze the manifold errors in Obama administration handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because the errors have been obvious from day one. Or day two, to be more accurate, when the president selected former senator George Mitchell as his special envoy.
It was down hill from there, as Mitchell began by insisting on a 100 percent Israeli construction freeze in the major blocks and Jerusalem as a prerequisite for negotiations. This was a condition on which Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas had never insisted. The result was four years, Mr. Obama's entire first term, without any negotiations.
That story is worth noting because Indyk has continued the obsession over settlements—and the supply of misinformation about them. He spoke last night of "rampant" settlement expansion. In his "background" interview with the Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea last week, he spoke of "large scale land confiscation" for settlement expansion. Here he is following the president, who recently spoke of "aggressive construction."
Last night Indyk said this, according to the transcripts I have seen:
Just during the past nine months of negotiations, tenders for building 4,800 units were announced and planning was advanced for another 8,000 units. It’s true that most of the tendered units are slated to be built in areas that even Palestinian maps in the past have indicated would be part of Israel. Yet the planning units were largely outside that area in the West Bank. And from the Palestinian experience, there is no distinction between planning and building. Indeed, according to the Israeli Bureau of Census and Statistics, from 2012 to 2013 construction starts in West Bank settlements more than doubled.
These numbers are meaningless and misleading. There is no "rampant" expansion or "large scale land confiscation" for settlements. First, there is certainly a difference between what is announced and what is built. Under the Israeli system, all construction in the West Bank requires several levels of approval, and not every project that gets initial approval gets built. Second, every level of approval is announced triumphantly by the settlement movement, so one reads press stories of approvals for the same project over and over as months pass. This makes it seems as if there are constant approvals, when in fact there are constant repetitions. Indyk surely knows this.
Third, the numbers are simply wrong. Uri Sadot and I wrote about this in the Washington Post, after a careful look at the statistics. Here is part of what we said:
Israel built 2,534 housing units last year in the West Bank. Of these, about a quarter (694) were in two major blocs near Jerusalem, Giv’at Ze’ev and Betar Illit, and 537 were in two other major blocs, Modiin Illit and Ma’ale Adumim, also near Jerusalem. These four, which will remain part of Israel, account for half of last year’s construction....only 908 units were built last year in Israeli townships of 10,000 residents or fewer. And most of those units were built in settlement towns that are part of the major blocs. Units built in areas that would become part of Palestine number in the hundreds — and likely in the low hundreds. Given that about 90,000 Israelis live in the West Bank outside the blocs, that is approximately the rate of natural growth.
Indyk may be suggesting that this pace (slower than that of Ehud Barak, the last Labor prime minister) may be about to explode--8,000 units to be built in small settlements, not in the major blocks, and beyond the fence line, in territory that is not obviously going to remain part of Israel. I'd like to see the evidence. So far the numbers are evidence of efforts by Netanyahu to constrain construction in the small settlements and of a continuing obsession on this subject by Indyk, and by Obama. I would also like to see the evidence of "large scale land confiscation," to which Indyk referred in his background interview. Where exactly, and how much land, exactly? Until Indyk tells us, this can only be treated as a damaging and baseless charge.
It is worth repeating why the details matter. If Israel builds now inside settlement borders of major blocks it will certainly keep in any final peace agreement, it is not disadvantaging Palestinians today nor is it making a final peace harder to achieve. In the years between Barak's peace offer at Camp David in 2000 and Olmert's offer in 2008, Israel built thousands of units--yet Olmert made an even more generous offer than Barak eight years later, offering the Palestinians an even larger percentage of West Bank land. He was able to do so because the construction had been confined mostly to those major blocks.
I believe Israeli construction in small settlements beyond the fence line, in territory that it is assumed will be Palestine some day, is foolish: a waste of resources at the very least. But construction in the major blocks is not, nor was it an obstacle to peace talks before the Obama administration foolishly made it so.
Finally, it's worth noting that Indyk also said last night that “the parties...do not feel the pressing need to make the gut-wrenching compromises necessary to achieve peace.” Those compromises and taking the risks they entail require a firm belief in fully reliable, dependable American support. Sharon, for example, believed he had it when he decided to leave Gaza. The parties do not believe they have it today, and who can be surprised? On the Israeli side, the Obama administration has repeatedly used leaks and backgrounders to disparage the prime minister. And Israelis (and Palestinians) who watched the president flip his position on Syria's chemical weapons—from an air strike one day, to a deal with the Russians the next, without consultation with anyone—can hardly credit the administration's solidity. Moreover, Israelis must recall what happened to the assurances Bush gave Israel in his famous April 14, 2004 letter to Sharon: the Obama administration has treated them as without force, as if this had been a private letter rather than a presidential commitment soon approved by both houses of Congress in huge majorities. Similarly, the administration said the agreement Bush and Sharon reached on settlements simply did not exist, when in fact that agreement had been referred to publicly on a dozen occasions. This is no way to persuade Israeli leaders to take "gut wrenching" risks because they are sure they can rely on American support.
But of all that Indyk had nothing whatsoever to say, choosing instead to tell a tale of brilliant American diplomacy and of Israeli and Palestinian failures. As was famously said in the neighborhood a long time ago (Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, Luke 4:23), "Physician, heal thyself."