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The Latest Settlements Snub by Trudy Rubin

Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer

ARIEL, West Bank - This week witnessed another davka moment in the Israeli government's relationship with the Obama White House.

Davka is Israeli slang for "in your face." And nothing could be more in-your-face than the announcement that Israeli authorities had approved the building of more than 1,800 new homes in Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in suburbs of Jerusalem beyond Israel's 1967 borders - especially since Vice President Biden had just met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu and asked him to renew a freeze on settlement-building.
Such a freeze is essential to the revival of peace talks with the Palestinians, a top priority for President Obama. Yet the Israeli response to the White House request was - pow!

What makes this move even more insulting is that Israeli officials did the same thing to Biden in March, announcing the building of 1,500 new units in the West Bank as he arrived in Jerusalem. The White House was justifiably furious, and the Israelis pledged to avoid such "surprises" in the future.

On Sunday, Biden told Bibi the earlier flap was forgotten and pledged that ties between the United States and Israel are "literally unbreakable." The Netanyahu government rewarded him with another poke in the eye.

The expansion of West Bank settlements is far more disturbing than it might appear to a casual observer. It has reached the point where it almost rules out the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state.

Driving around the West Bank with Hagit Ofran, who monitors settlement building for the Israeli organization Peace Now, I could see tractors leveling ground in several settlements and earthmoving equipment digging foundations. In Ariel, a controversial settlement town where 800 new units will be constructed, a whole hillside had been terraced to make way for apartment buildings and townhouses. The town has a university and a new theater, and is among the settlements the government insists it will keep.

Yet Ariel points eastward like a long finger across the midriff of Samaria, the northern half of the West Bank. A fistful of smaller settlements, along with several illegal outposts - nascent settlements that violate Israeli law but are almost never disbanded - extends westward from the hills overlooking the Jordan Valley. The finger and the fist nearly touch, effectively dividing Samaria in half.

The impact here, as elsewhere in the dry hills and valleys of the West Bank, is to divide the land into cantons; Palestinian towns and villages are cut off from each other by Jewish settlements, checkpoints, and special settler roads.

The Israeli government claims that settlements are not obstacles to talks and can be dismantled if there is an accord. It notes that Jewish settlements were removed from Sinai and Gaza.

But visit the West Bank and you see huge differences between those examples and the vast settlement enterprise here. More than 300,000 Jewish settlers live in communities built on a grid intended to ensure permanent control of large chunks of territory.

Similarly, the expansion of a belt of suburbs around Jerusalem is meant to permanently separate the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem from their Palestinian hinterland. Yet there is no chance for a two-state solution unless Jerusalem becomes the capital of both states.

So it is sophistry to assert, as Netanyahu's office has done, that there is no connection between the peace process and Jerusalem. Nor are West Bank settlements a "marginal issue," as the prime minister insists.

Netanyahu's cavalier treatment of his closest ally is doubly offensive because Obama has gone out of his way to assure him of America's commitment to Israel's security in the short and long term. The White House even made a grossly overgenerous offer of diplomatic and military benefits if Israel would extend the settlement freeze by only 60 days (too short a time to make a difference).

There is no excuse for Bibi's negative response. If far-right members of his political coalition balk over a settlement freeze, the center-right Kadima party is ready to join his government. And a settlement freeze would test the Palestinians' readiness to deal.

The disrespect the Israeli government has shown Obama not only undercuts the slim chances for talks, but also weakens the image of the United States throughout the Middle East. This harms Jerusalem as well as Washington.

Israel's davka behavior toward the Obama White House has got to stop.