President Obama took a lot of heat for efforts to get Israel to freeze its settlement construction. One thing that struck me about the debate was the way in which it seemed disconnected from a long history of US efforts to get Israel to freeze settlement construction.
Never mind that in one of the most prominent (the most prominent?) books proposing a foreign policy agenda for the new president in 2008, Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President, Shibley Telhami and Steven A. Cook called on the new president to seek a freeze: “Press Israel to freeze settlement construction.” (page 153)
What is more noteworthy is how many recent US presidents have also sought a freeze. Jimmy Carter thought he had one at Camp David in September 1978 (Carter thought Menachem Begin had agreed to a freeze for the duration of the autonomy negotiations, meaning at least a year. After the summit, Begin “clarified” that the freeze was for the duration of the talks on an Egypt-Israel treaty, scheduled to take three months. The disagreement was never settled. See Quandt, Peace Process, pages 202-03, 208 in the 2001 edition; or this interview with then US Amb. to Israel Sam Lewis.)
The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transitional period. Indeed, the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated.
Note in the speech how Reagan framed the move as a confidence-building measure.
When then Secretary of State James Baker convened the Madrid conference in 1991, he mentioned U.S. opposition to settlements in his pre-conference letter to the Palestinians (Appendix M):
The United States has long believed that no party should take unilateral actions that seek to predetermine issues that can only be resolved through negotiations. In this regard the United States has opposed and will continue to oppose settlement activity in the territories occupied in 1967, which remains an obstacle to peace.
Later, both the Mitchell Report (April 30, 2001) and George W. Bush’s Roadmap for Peace (April 30, 2003) directly called on the Government of Israel to freeze settlements, including “natural growth.”
I am not claiming every US administration pursued a freeze with the same vigor. But the fact that so many administrations chose to highlight a freeze suggests that the Obama administration was very much in the U.S. mainstream.