Hey Barack!

What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?

Barack Obama speaks to reporters as Benjamin Netanyahu looks on. AP Images

As the spat between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration continues over Israeli plans to build 1,600 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem, we need to take a step back and look at the big picture.

Forget for a moment the construction of new Israeli settlements and remember that almost 500,000 Israelis live in more than 100 settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

It is illegal to build settlements on conquered territory and the continued existence of these communities is a slap in the face. Despite this glaring reality, the notion that the US should urge Israel to remove existing settlements hasn’t even entered the equation.

The prospects for peace have grown so distant and the discourse so convoluted that we are now at a point where Israel agreeing to stop for a moment its continuing theft of Palestinian land is somehow viewed as a concession that requires Palestinian reciprocity.

One would think that a Harvard-trained lawyer who seeks to restore America’s reputation abroad and act as an honest broker for peace in the Middle East would be troubled by Israel’s continued flouting of international law.

But even if Obama doesn’t want to concern himself with this inconvenient detail he might want to listen to the man he relies on to run his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and all other American operations underway in the Middle East.

US General David Petraeus warned that the continuing occupation of Palestinian land aids Al Qaeda, calling the conflict one of the “root causes of instability” in the Middle East.

If there is any hope of realizing peace through a two-state solution it will require immediate and meaningful efforts to pull back the web of settlements, checkpoints and Israeli-only roads fracturing the occupied territories before it is too late.

In a recent speech to the powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC, Benjamin Netanyahu declared defiantly, “Jerusalem is not a settlement. It’s our capital.”

"Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement,” he said.

The Palestinians don’t know that, the international community doesn’t know that, and the Americans aren’t supposed to know that either.

But in an address to the same pro-Israel lobbyists Hillary Clinton promised that America’s support for Israel is “rock solid, unwavering, enduring and forever.”

Considering that Israel’s ultranationalist settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are politically powerful and armed to the teeth, it is questionable whether they could actually be removed. But as long as the US bickers with Israel about future settlements instead of demanding the removal of existing ones, no progress will be made toward a two-state solution. The situation will only spiral down faster toward intractable apartheid.

-Blake Sifton