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Obama demands that Israel stop settlements. How feasible is that?

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After a pause during the transition at the White House, American monitors – drawn from the military and the State Department – are ramping up efforts to keep tabs on implementation of a settlement freeze. US envoy George Mitchell is also setting up an office, which is expected to be involved in refereeing.

The monitors are trying to build a database independent of the information they get from the Israeli government. Monitors will also have to find out how Israel's government responds to violations.

The question for US policymakers is how to use evidence of future violations. The Obama administration has many tools at its disposal: a private protest through diplomats, a public report card, economic pressure or political pressure, among others. That risks damaging ties with a close ally as well as instigating political protest from American Jews.

"There aren't firm answers yet," says the diplomat. "You're churning up new soil that hasn't been plowed in a while."

More than 300,000 settlers today

The last president to challenge Israel on settlement expansion was George H. W. Bush, who withheld loan guarantees in 1991, when former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refused to rein in expansion.

Another former prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, announced a freeze on the establishment of new settlements shortly after he was elected in 1992. But building in existing settlements continued apace. From 1993 to 2000, the years of the Oslo peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, there was a 71 percent boom in the Jewish settler population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The total rose to 198,000, not including those in East Jerusalem.

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