JERUSALEM — In his landmark speech to the Arab world seven years ago, President Barack Obama warned that Israeli settlements on occupied territories were undermining hopes for peace. “It is time for these settlements to stop,” he declared.
As Obama heads into the home stretch of his presidency, he leaves behind an unfulfilled vision. Not only did he fail to stop it, but he watched Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem thrive — despite repeated White House condemnations.
According to Israeli government data obtained by The Associated Press, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed a wave of construction during the Obama presidency that matched, and even exceeded, the amount of building that took place under his predecessors during the Bush years.
The figures show the limits of U.S. influence over its close ally and a reluctance to link financial support to Israel with policy differences. Despite the Israeli defiance over settlements and a long history of friction between Obama and Netanyahu, the two countries signed a deal this week giving Israel $38 billion in U.S. military aid over 10 years, the largest deal of its kind in American history.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said the Obama presidency has been a disappointment for her people. After the promise of his 2009 speeches in Egypt and Turkey pledging to build bridges with the Muslim world, “it’s been downhill since then,” she said.
Ashrawi said she was “not surprised at all” by the figures and dismissed U.S. criticism as lip service. “They did nothing to stop it. On the contrary, they looked the other way.”
The settlement figures, obtained from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, show that 12,288 new settlement buildings were started in the West Bank during Obama’s term up to June 30, the most recent data available.
In the first half of 2016 alone, work began on 1,195 housing units, figures released this week showed.
Based on that pace of construction, the number could well exceed 13,000 housing units by the time Obama leaves office, not far behind the 14,636 begun during Bush’s two terms.
Figures for east Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to establish their capital, show a similar story.
According to data gathered by the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now, there were 3,915 housing starts during Obama’s term as of the end of 2015. Based on recent trends, by the time Obama leaves office that number will almost certainly surpass the 4,191 units started during the Bush years.
Obama did manage to coax Israel into a partial settlement freeze in 2009 and 2010, briefly slowing down construction. In addition, much of the construction has been confined to major “blocs” and areas of Jerusalem that Israel expects to keep under any future peace deal. But to Palestinians, these distinctions make no difference.
Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem, along with the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim all three territories for an independent state alongside Israel, a position that has broad international backing.
The U.S., along with the Palestinians and nearly all of the international community, considers settlements to be illegal or illegitimate, viewing them as obstacles to peace. Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem is not internationally recognized.
Over five decades, the Israeli settler population in the West Bank has grown to roughly 400,000 people in dozens of settlements, in addition to 200,000 others in areas of east Jerusalem. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and the territory is now controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Despite the stance that settlements are detrimental to peace, U.S. officials say the U.S. is committed to Israeli security, and that military aid cannot be linked to policy differences.
“It wasn’t even hinted at during the discussions,” Israel’s acting national security adviser, Jacob Nagel, who negotiated the aid package, was quoted as saying by the Haaretz daily.
In a statement marking the deal, Obama said the U.S. “will also continue to press for a two-state solution to the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the deeply troubling trends on the ground that undermine this goal.”
The White House declined to answer questions about the success or failure of its settlement policy. But a senior Obama administration official acknowledged the settlements have continued growing significantly during the Obama years. The official said the U.S. decided against linking the aid package to settlement policy, fearing such threats would embolden Israel’s enemies and decrease prospects for peace.
The official declined to say whether Obama plans to take any action in his final months of office, but left open the possibility the U.S. would “carefully consider” supporting a U.N. resolution criticizing Israel if the occasion arose. The official was not authorized to speak on the record and requested anonymity.
Peter Beinart, a liberal American commentator who has been an outspoken critic of the settlements, said Obama had missed an opportunity. He accused the president of “giving up” American leverage because for fear of angering the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC and its allies.
“American policy toward Israel is a charade,” Beinart wrote in Haaretz.
Bush enjoyed warm relations with Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert during his term from 2001 to 2009. Obama has had a more contentious relationship with Netanyahu since both men took office in 2009. Yet both presidents took similar stances against the settlements, to little avail.
Netanyahu, a longtime ally of the settlers, has dismissed the differences with the U.S. as a friendly disagreement. Last week, he angered his allies by comparing international calls to uproot settlements to “ethnic cleansing.”
Hagit Ofran, a researcher at Peace Now, said a president’s influence is limited, and that ultimately the Israeli prime minister drives settlement policy. Ironically, she said, construction tends to increase when peace talks are taking place, apparently because negotiators are so focused on reaching a deal.
In a way, the breakdown in talks over the past two years has restrained Netanyahu, she said.
“Now, there is no political process, Netanyahu is exposed. Whatever he is doing gets the full attention,” she said.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.