The Obama administration's current obsession over Jewish settlements in the West Bank is misguided. The president may think that publicly pushing the issue will enhance his standing in the Muslim/Arab world and aid his peacemaking efforts, but this approach is likely to backfire.
With Iran on the cusp of developing nuclear capabilities — and its extremist proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, at Israel's borders — what Israelis need most right now are assurances that diplomatic efforts in the region will enhance their security.
By focusing on settlements, the administration gives the Arab world a cause célèbre — and an excuse to avoid the more difficult but requisite steps toward accommodation with Israel.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was astonishingly honest in admitting this inertia while visiting Washington last week. "We can't talk to the Arabs" about taking small confidence-building steps toward Israel "until Israel agrees to freeze settlements and recognize the two-state solution," Abbas told The Washington Post. "Until then we can't talk to anyone," he said, implying that negotiations with Israel were also off-limits until Jerusalem complies.
Obama — however determined he is to define a new path in the Middle East — is sending the wrong message. As Jackson Diehl, the Post editor who sat down with Abbas, put it: In shifting the focus to Israel, Obama "has revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud."
This is not the first time that settlements have exacerbated tensions between Israel and the United States, and have diverted the parties from the real issues at hand. Relations sank to an all-time low after former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, back in 1991, dissed Israel, in essence telling Congress that the Jewish state could call when its leaders were serious about peace.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to settlements. Given his past support for developing them, as well as the hard-line elements in his governing coalition, it is not insignificant that he has pledged not to build any new ones and that he's also moved to dismantle illegal outposts. The only dispute at this point appears to be over "natural growth" of existing settlements, even among those likely to remain a part of Israel in any eventual peace deal.
History has shown that settlements are not the issue that stands in the way of peace. The majority of Israelis have demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice settlements in exchange for a real chance for peace. We're all for honesty between friends. But the president must tone down the rhetoric before he so alienates the Israeli people that they'd be unwilling to take the ever-growing risks any peace deal would require.