There have been hints in the press that the Obama Administration has been considering conditioning U.S. aid to Israel on a real freeze of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. There's a conventional wisdom that suggests that doing this would touch a "third rail of politics." But the conventional wisdom might not have been accurate; if it once was accurate, it might not be accurate any more.
WorldPublicOpinion.org has just released a poll showing that three-quarters of Americans oppose Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. This number is up 23 points from 2002.
Even among respondents who say they sympathize with Israel more than the Palestinians, 64% say Israel should not build settlements in the West Bank.
Opposition to settlements is found among majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Those who followed the issue closely oppose settlement expansion by the same margin as those who don't.
Some may say: public opinion doesn't matter. What matters, they may say, is that the so-called "Israel Lobby" will effectively punish any politician who tries to shift U.S. policy towards Israel and the Palestinians.
But the Obama Administration has already proved that this isn't necessarily so.
The Los Angeles Times reports:
The administration has asked Congress for minor changes in U.S. law that would permit aid to continue flowing to Palestinians in the event Hamas-backed officials become part of a unified Palestinian government.
Secretary of State Clinton defended the administration's position before Congress. She noted that
the United States supports and funds the Lebanese government, even though it includes members of Hezbollah, another militant group on the U.S. terrorist list.
Reps. Nita Lowey and Mark Kirk objected. But as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency notes,
Significantly, however, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-Fla.), a pro-Israel stalwart, defended Clinton in a call organized by the National Jewish Democratic Council to mark the first 100 days of the Obama administration.
"The unity government itself will have embraced those principles," she said. "The most important priority for members of Congress is to support Israel and to move the peace process forward."
If the Obama Administration can shift U.S. policy towards engaging in some form with Hamas, then surely it can shift policy towards moving the U.S. from ineffective to effective implementation of its stated policy of opposition to Israeli settlement expansion, as it is virtually universally recognized that stopping Israeli settlement expansion is an absolutely necessary element of achieving a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict - just as it is virtually universally recognized that some form of engagement with Hamas will be necessary to achieve a two-state solution in the long run, and to get effective aid into Gaza in the short run.
Moreover, if the U.S. would get serious about stopping Israeli settlement expansion, it could help fundamentally alter the political dynamics in Israel. Israel's right-wing has grown accustomed to the notion that Israel can indefinitely go through the motions of a "peace process," while steadily expanding settlements in the West Bank in the hopes of making a Palestinian state impossible. If the U.S. puts an end to this game, it will empower the political forces in Israel who genuinely want a two-state solution - who, on this question, represent the majority of the Israeli population.