On the second day of his trip to the Middle East, President Barack Obama criticized the Israeli settlements on Palestinians territory, saying that they are an obstacle to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Speaking at a joint news conference on Thursday morning with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Obama said that the U.S. does “not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace.”
A few hours later, he addressed a largely student audience in Jerusalem, and again argued, “continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace.” Earlier, however, he had also offered a rebuke to the Palestinian demand that settlement expansion be frozen before talks resume, saying that the continued expansion of settlements should not prevent the restarting of negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
He offered no indication whatsoever that his administration would put any pressure on Israel over its settlements.
While Obama’s comments, especially those made in Jerusalem on Thursday morning, are likely to be met with praise by many for its supposedly balanced approach to the conflict, without being backed up by U.S. action it is nothing more than grand rhetoric.
Obama’s speeches on Thursday differ from his comments on Wednesday in that he actually mentioned Palestine and the Palestinians. On Wednesday, Obama spoke about his visit as an opportunity to “reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”
To put it another way, Wednesday was all about the important stuff and the real reason for the trip: Reassuring Israel and Israelis of America’s ongoing and unequivocal support. Thursday contained further reminders of this, but Obama also used his remarks on Thursday to pay lip service to the two-state solution and offer empty criticism of Israeli settlements.
When commenting on the Israeli settlements, Obama did not repeat his first-term demand that Israel cease its expansion of settlements in the West Bank, a demand that was publicly rejected by Israeli leaders. Instead he chose to describe the settlements as “counterproductive,” and not “constructive” or “appropriate” to advancing the cause of peace. This hardly represents forceful criticism of Israeli policy. The choice of such tame wording simply highlights the purely symbolic nature of Obama’s comments of the settlements.
Israeli settlements are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which, as Iain Scobbie, the Sir Joseph Hotung Research Professor in Law at the University of London points out, “explicitly prohibits colonizing occupied territories.” Earlier this year the United Nations’ first report on Israel’s settlement policy described the process as a “creeping annexation that prevents the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian State and undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.”
However, as Ian Black, Middle East editor of the Guardian, rightly points out, there is nothing in Obama’s comments “that would have seriously discomfited the Israeli government.” Instead, with continued unconditional financial and diplomatic support from the U.S., which recently refused to take part in a UN Human Rights Council debate on the settlements, the pro-settler Israeli government coalition can go on continuing to violate international law with impunity.
On Obama’s first day in Israel, Jonathan Cook wrote on CounterPunch that “We can expect grand words, a few meagre promises and total inaction on the occupation” from Obama’s trip. Sadly he was spot on. Reacting to Obama’s speech in Jerusalem on Thursday morning, Yousef Munayyer, executive director of The Palestine Center in Washington, D.C., and Hisham Melhem, bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, D.C., both highlighted the emptiness of Obama’s rhetoric:
Obama says settlements are "unhelpful" but refuses to do anything to stop them, only promises to continue to subsidize them with US $$— Yousef Munayyer (@YousefMunayyer) March 21, 2013
Unless Obama’s speech is followed by robust US efforts led by him, to achieve peace it will be judged as just another outburst of eloquence.— Hisham Melhem (@hisham_melhem) March 21, 2013
Obama's carefully planned and targeted rhetoric is aimed at reassuring Israel of America’s unconditional support, but is also designed to show that U.S. government apparently cares about the Palestinians too. Yet all the while his administration is doing exactly nothing to change the status quo and therefore nothing to positively affect the chances of peace.
If the Obama administration seriously believed that the settlements are an obstacle to peace and seriously supported a two-state solution then it could make its financial and diplomatic support for Israel conditional upon Israel changing its policy. But clearly it does not. As Cook points out, the “unspoken message of Obama’s visit is that the Netanyahu government is free to pursue its hardline agenda with little danger of anything more than symbolic protest from Washington.”