Israel's reckless decision to build thousands of homes for settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem threatens any remaining prospects for a peace agreement with the Palestinians. The United States should continue to condemn the move at least as forcefully as it denounced last week’s action by the United Nations that implicitly recognized Palestinian statehood.
The expanding settlements have already undermined hopes for a legitimate two-state solution, the only practical way to end this near-intractable conflict. With roughly 500,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank, a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip may no longer be possible.
Israel’s defiant announcement last Friday followed the ill-advised vote by the U.N. General Assembly granting limited recognition of statehood to the Palestinians, upgrading them to a nonmember observer state. The move was at best symbolic, at worst a needless distraction and provocation: Israel froze the transfer of $120 million in taxes it collected for the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The decision by Israel to expand settlements was even more damaging to the peace process. West Bank settlements, which have tripled over the past 20 years, have stalled peace talks for two years.
Israel said it would build 3,000 homes in West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem, and advance settlement plans in the so-called E-1 area east of Jerusalem — land deemed vital for a future Palestinian state. Constructing housing units there, which the United States opposes, would cut off the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem — in effect, the entire West Bank — from Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
The U.N. resolution on Palestinian statehood presupposed an agreement without negotiations. But ongoing settlement activity effectively imposes an agreement that makes a two-state solution — a state of Palestine alongside Israel — practically impossible. Some Palestinians have started to talk about a one-state solution, a prospect the vast majority of Israelis would not even consider.
Israel’s plan to expand settlements was a sobering reminder to Palestinians that recognition by the U.N. changes little on the ground. Israel has made a point, but at what price, even to its own security?
This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu further inflamed sentiments by vowing to press forward with construction in the face of widespread international opposition.
Mr. Netanyahu might not care about global opinion. But he ought to care about the views of the United States, one of only a handful of countries that stood with Israel in the United Nations on the Palestinian vote.
Only the United States has the influence and credibility to broker an agreement, but it must do more than call the construction blueprint counterproductive. President Obama’s administration must pressure Israel, even with the threat of sanctions, to back away from its plans to expand settlements, especially east of Jerusalem, if it hopes to restart peace talks and preserve any hope for a two-state solution.