Biden and the Israeli Settlement Elephant in the Room

One of Barack Obama’s first acts as president was to create the position of envoy for “Middle East peace.” George Mitchell, whom the president named for this post on January 22, 2009, days after a cease-fire was reached to bring an end to a 22-day Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, had a lengthy resume. A longtime US senator and former Senate majority leader, Mitchell had important experience with peacemaking as well. He helped broker the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that set the terms for power-sharing between Irish nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland. He had also become very familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and its failings when he led the international commission to investigate the causes behind the events of October 2000, the start of the second Palestinian intifada.

Among other things, the resulting Mitchell report, as it became known, called for an Israeli settlement freeze as a precursor to continued negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. This formed part of the George W. Bush Administration’s “Road Map to Peace,” which included an Israeli settlement freeze as a first phase obligation. President Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell signaled an association with this view and, indeed, the Obama Administration made securing a settlement freeze an early pillar of its peace process policy. But a right-wing Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was uncooperative, seeking to expand settlements and keep the focus on Iran. President Joe Biden, then Obama’s vice president, had a front row seat to the drama. He was visiting Israel in March 2010 when its government announced a major expansion of an Israeli settlement outside Jerusalem. Biden said the announcement “undermines that very trust, the trust that we need right now.”

By the end of 2010, as it realized how difficult Netanyahu was making the process, the Obama Administration gave up its demand for an Israeli settlement freeze.

By the end of 2010, as it realized how difficult Netanyahu was making the process, the Obama Administration gave up its demand for an Israeli settlement freeze. From that point forward, whatever was left of the peace process only deteriorated further. The Palestinians sought an internationalization strategy that included applying for UN membership and tapping other international institutions, while the Israelis continued to saber-rattle around Iran, an issue that would soon dominate the Obama Administration’s Middle East focus. During Obama’s second term, Secretary of State John Kerry was handed the Sisyphean task of shepherding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and despite many air miles logged, he ended his tenure empty-handed. The administration’s second term would conclude with a historic diplomatic agreement with Iran but with Israelis and Palestinians as far apart as ever.

It is evident that President Joe Biden and many members of his administration, who were also part of Obama’s, learned some key lessons from the experiences of this period. One such lesson seems to be that an emphasis on settlements is not a good strategy, while another is that trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a lost cause and the best that could be hoped for is to manage it. It seems that both of these lessons are being applied in Biden Administration policy today. To be sure, such an approach is dangerously misguided and unlikely to work because Israeli settlements continue to embody the most dangerous friction points that lead to escalation and stalemate.

The Nature of Settlement Building

“Settlement”—a better term would be “colonization”—is a process that encapsulates Zionism’s history in Palestine and constitutes the very root of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The steady demolition of Palestinian homes and appropriation of Palestinian land, forcing Palestinians to abandon everything they have known to make way for a new home, neighborhood, or city for Israeli Jews is a story that has played out time and again, across the geography, for over a century.

“Settlement”—a better term would be “colonization”—is a process that encapsulates Zionism’s history in Palestine and constitutes the very root of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in 2021, 901 Palestinian structures were demolished by Israel in the occupied territories, leading to the displacement of nearly 1,200 Palestinians. An outsized number of these home demolitions and dislocations is taking place in and around Jerusalem, where Israel’s settlement expansion policies are in full swing.

According to data collected by the Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now, the Israeli government has issued tenders for nearly 3,500 settlement homes in 2021. These numbers are based on government publications; however, since only 13 of over 200 settlements require the process of tenders, this cannot be seen as a holistic assessment but rather a snapshot of broader trends. The 3,500 tenders are triple the number from just two years prior; they represent the second highest recorded number in the last 20 years.

Potential Hotspots

Even if Biden Administration officials may want to avoid confrontation with Israel over settlements, it is a fact that Israeli colonization is both a war crime and a consistently destabilizing policy that will inevitably lead to greater death and destruction. Below are three different but key areas where Israeli colonization might force the Biden Administration to come out of its comfort zone and respond.

The Heart: Sheikh Jarrah/East Jerusalem. No place is more sensitive or important for Palestinians than Jerusalem, and Palestinian neighborhoods in and around East Jerusalem are constantly under threat. Last year, what became known as the Unity Intifada erupted as Israeli forces cracked down on protests against pending eviction orders for families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which is adjacent to the Old City. Nearly 220 Palestinian families in East Jerusalem are facing eviction orders, putting hundreds of people, including children, at risk of displacement. Eleven of the Palestinians, all part of the Salem family, may well be evicted from their home in Sheikh Jarrah as soon as this month.

The Noose: Atarot/Maale Adumim. While settlers encroaching on Sheikh Jarrah are aiming for a neighborhood that lies right next to the Old City itself, a different set of settlements threatens Palestinians in and around Jerusalem. Since occupying the West Bank in 1967, Israel began the process of building a ring of settlements around its unilaterally expanded municipality of Jerusalem in an effort to geographically separate it from the rest of the West Bank. These settlements encircle the city from the north, east, and south and would cut Palestinians off from their capital. Over time, the Israeli state has tried hard to fill in the gaps to tighten the noose around Jerusalem and make contiguous Palestinian demography into the city a thing of the past. Parts of this noose include the Israeli settlements of Atarot, Maale Adumim, and Givat Hamatos.

Even if Biden Administration officials may want to avoid confrontation with Israel over settlements, it is a fact that Israeli colonization is both a war crime and a consistently destabilizing policy.

In recent months, the Israeli state stepped up the process of building in these areas. In December of 2021 for example, the prospect of building in the settlement of Atarot seemed to be advancing. Atarot sits north of Jerusalem and south of Ramallah, in between the village of Qalandia and the Qalandia refugee camp. This is an extremely sensitive area as it would further divide Palestinians from each other and create yet another obstacle to the already limited Palestinian access to Jerusalem. Hagit Ofran, writing in Haaretz about the plan for Atarot, noted in December 2021 that “the District Planning and Construction Committee, under central government jurisdiction, is expected to discuss the first step of the planning process, known as depositing. The planning procedure is a bit like a snowball. Once you start promoting the plan, it has a life of its own, the bureaucracy gets into gear, economic and legal expectations are created, and it becomes increasingly difficult to stop it.”

And yet it seems the plan was stopped, reportedly under American pressure—at least for now. But this is a process that could start up again at any time; and while, at the moment, the Israelis might be willing to shelve such plans at Washington’s request, the next time might be different.

Other areas are also seeing prospects for advancement, including the territory in the West Bank that the Israelis call E1, which is part of their greater Jerusalem expansion plan. This area sits between the massive Israeli settlement of Maale Adumin, located between Jerusalem and Jericho, and Jerusalem. Building in the E1 area would effectively create contiguous Jewish settlement from Jerusalem to the higher elevation mountains ahead of the Jordan Rift Valley, thereby bisecting the West Bank.

The Radicals: Homesh. In the northern West Bank, a settlement called Homesh used to exist until 2005 when it was dismantled along with a small number of others as part of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza. Since then, however, there has been a drive by its former residents as well as other settlers in the region to rebuild the settlement on the site. Often, settlers will attempt to erect makeshift homes in the area and have even clashed with the Israeli military in the process. Some of the radical settlers involved in this movement to build further illegal outposts are also at the epicenter of a spike in Israeli settler violence throughout the region. Recently, after an Israeli settler was shot and killed in an alleged attack in December, a major march of religious nationalist settlers from across the West Bank took place demanding that the settlement of Homesh be rebuilt. While a vote to do so failed in the Knesset, the mobilization reignited support for the objective and was able to garner 50 votes, the most in support of this motion since 2005. The building of outposts and the movement behind them constitute a radical collective that is bubbling below the surface; indeed, it is capable of boiling over at any time.

The Costs of De-emphasis

The Biden Administration has taken a different path, veering from the original approach of the Obama Administration—even if personnel significantly overlapped both presidencies. Settlements are clearly no longer the centerpiece of policy-making. But what are the costs? The Obama Administration aimed for a settlement freeze because it believed doing so would get a political process back on track toward a negotiated solution. Obama inarguably failed to achieve that goal, for many reasons, but at least his administration had a goal.

It is much harder to discern the goal of the Biden Administration when it comes to Israel/Palestine.

It is much harder to discern the goal of the Biden Administration when it comes to Israel/Palestine. Two plausible possibilities could be considered as the aim of Biden’s policy: preservation and management. Either way, however, the failure to emphasize settlements seems self-defeating.

If preservation is the goal—that is, holding the geographic and demographic situation intact so the possibility of partition is preserved for when the political dynamics shift—then preventing settlement expansion must be a key priority. Not only does the continued expansion and building of settlements continue to shift the demographics, making partition even harder to imagine, but it also ensures that the political dynamics remain opposed to a negotiated solution.

If management is the goal—that is, seeking to keep destabilizing conflict and its regional reverberations to a minimum over time while acknowledging no solution is possible—then preventing settlement expansion must also be a key priority. Time and again, settlement expansion acts as the engine of daily Israeli oppression of Palestinians: taking their land and their homes, replacing them with Israeli Jews, and doing so all by force. There is no way to effectively manage such policies.

One plausible reason for the de-emphasis on settlements when the Biden Administration came to power was that it was waiting for the Israeli political scene to stabilize; it was mired in endless elections at that time. Now however, a new Israeli government is in place and, after passing a budget, it seems to have staved off elections for a few years. This might have something to do with the relative uptick in talk about settlements by Washington in the last few months. But with every day that goes by and with the construction of every new illegal settlement home, there is less of Palestine to preserve and more potential for another major escalation to develop.