Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t only hear about settlements from the president last week, but Congress also pressed him over the issue, according to an Israeli newspaper report.
According to a translation of a Yediot Ahronot article provided by Americans for Peace Now:
John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said: The United States expects to receive from Israel a commitment to solve the problem of settlements, to stop construction in existing settlements, to remove unauthorized settlement outposts and to stop saying that construction is for purposes of natural growth.
Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a veteran Jewish legislator and chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said to Netanyahu: The issue of settlements is a matter of principle for the administration and Congress. It must be dealt with in conjunction with addressing the Iranian threat. Other members of Congress said similar things to Netanyahu. No one took a favorable line towards Israel on this matter, with the exception of Eric Cantor, a Jewish Republican Congressman from [Virginia].
A senior Israeli official who was present at the meetings defined them as “a fight” and “mutual arm-wrestling,” with Netanyahu trying to put an emphasis on the Iranian issue, and the members of Congress insisting on returning to the issue of the settlements. The senior official emphasized that there was full coordination between President Obama and the members of the Democratic majority in Congress. Netanyahu discovered yesterday how much Congress had changed, the senior official said. In 1996, Netanyahu recruited the Republican majority that existed in Congress against Clinton, the Democratic president. Today, this is impossible.
APN lauded Congress for its focus on the settlements issue:
Americans for Peace Now today sent letters to congressional leaders praising them for making clear to visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States expects Israel to follow through on its commitments to stop settlements. …
"It’s hugely significant that Netanyahu heard the same message from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue: Settlements must stop," said Debra DeLee, President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now. "Settlements undermine the two-state solution, which is the best hope for peace for Israel. It is also a clear U.S. national security interest," she added.
According to one media report, the only Member of Congress not to speak out against West Bank settlements during his meeting with Mr. Netanyahu was Rep. Eric Cantor. "I sincerely hope that this report is wrong, and I urge Rep. Cantor to act as a true friend of Israel and speak out clearly against West Bank settlements," said DeLee.
APN’s letter to Rep. Cantor expressed concerns about this account.
J Street also praised Congress for conveying the settlement message in a release yesterday in which it also said it was "deeply dismayed" by Netanyahu’s statement that he would not stop the "natural growth" of West Bank settlements:
J Street is deeply dismayed by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s remarks Sunday in which he rejected both a full settlement freeze in the West Bank and limitations on Israeli expansion in disputed areas of Jerusalem.
Just last week, the Prime Minister heard clearly from President Barack Obama and from other American political leaders that settlement construction and expansion must end. We share their concern that further growth of any kind only diminishes the prospects for peace and for the two-state solution that is essential to Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic homeland.
J Street commends Rep. Gary Ackerman, Chairman of the House Middle East Subcommittee, and the delegation of Committee Members he is leading for carrying this message strongly to Israel’s leadership during a visit this week.
The President, Vice President Biden, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry and these members of Congress all agree that a serious push for a two-state solution – as well as broader peace negotiations between Israel and her neighbors – must begin with a full freeze of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.
In speaking out against settlement expansion, these American leaders have widespread support in the American Jewish community. Our recent poll shows that some 60 percent of American Jews firmly oppose the expansion of Israeli settlements, recognizing it as being detrimental to the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace efforts, which they overwhelmingly favor….
The Washington Post noted over the weekend that efforts to press Netanyahu to stop settlements are complicated by a "secret agreement" President George W. Bush made with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon:
While in Washington, Netanyahu argued that Israel already dismantled settlements in the Gaza Strip, going beyond the road map, and was rewarded with the takeover of Gaza by the Hamas militant group and hundreds of rockets raining on Israeli towns, Israeli sources said. Still, shortly after he returned to Israel, the government tore down an unauthorized outpost, Maoz Esther. Israel is committed under the road map to remove about 26 such outposts, typically small groups of rudimentary structures with a few families. Settlers began rebuilding Maoz Esther almost immediately.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said there are no plans for a full settlement freeze. "The issue of settlements is a final status issue, and until there are final status arrangements, it would not be fair to kill normal life inside existing communities," he said.
Regev said the Israeli government is relying on "understandings" between former president George W. Bush and former prime minister Ariel Sharon that some of the larger settlements in the occupied West Bank would ultimately become part of Israel, codified in a letter that Bush gave to Sharon in 2004. In an interview with The Washington Post last year, Sharon aide Dov Weissglas said that in 2005, when Sharon was poised to remove settlers from Gaza, the Bush administration arrived at a secret agreement — not disclosed to the Palestinians — that Israel could add homes in settlements it expected to keep, as long as the construction was dictated by market demand, not subsidies.
Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser who negotiated the arrangement with Weissglas, confirmed the deal in an interview last week. "At the time of the Gaza withdrawal, there were lengthy discussions about how settlement activity might be constrained, and in fact it was constrained in the later part of the Sharon years and the Olmert years in accordance with the ideas that were discussed," he said. "There was something of an understanding realized on these questions, but it was never a written agreement."
Regev said Israeli and U.S. negotiators are discussing the degree to which the terms of the 2004 letter will apply under the new administration, but U.S. officials indicated that Obama wants to move beyond the 2004 letter and hold Israel to its commitments under the road map. "The bottom line is we expect all the parties in the region to honor their commitments, and for the Israelis, that means a stop to settlements, as the president said," a senior administration official said.