Israel's challenge

July 12, 2002

DON'T MAKE the mistake of focusing on Israel's recent dismantling of 11 fledgling settlements on the West Bank: All but two had no one living there. And don't be fooled by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent comments that the illegal settler outposts were removed because "the law is the law": He went on to characterize the Jewish settlers as "very brave" and "the pioneers of the new millennium."

Which is to say the removal of these outposts in no way signals any change in the strong pro-settlement stance of Mr. Sharon or his hawkish government. In President Bush's Mideast policy speech last month, notable for his call for a change in Palestinian leadership, he emphasized the responsibility of governments and individuals alike to help achieve a peaceful solution. He challenged Israel to do its part by ending settlement activity. But Israel's paltry steps on that front hardly measure up.

And two decisions taken this week by Mr. Sharon's government certainly run contrary to the spirit of Mr. Bush's call to action.

A move to severely restrict land purchases by Israel's 1 million Arab citizens -- contrary to the country's constitutional pledge of equality for all -- can only inflame Palestinian sentiments on both sides of the "Green Line."

Second, a raid on the Jerusalem office of Palestinian intellectual and moderate Sari Nusseibeh (while he was abroad) is a ridiculously ineffectual way for Israel to reassert its claim over the totality of the holy city. Mr. Nusseibeh is among the leading Palestinian peace proponents who recently called for an end to suicide bombings.

But it is the presence of an estimated 200,000 Jewish settlers in the Israeli occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that remains among the most formidable deterrents to Mr. Bush's challenge.

The day before Israel's defense ministry announced its decision to remove the illegal settlements-in-the-making, the Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now released statistics that tracked settlement activity from the February 2001 elections in which Mr. Sharon became prime minister to the present.

What the survey found is this: 44 new settlement sites have been established in that period, nine erected in just the past three months. Why does this matter? Because it shows clearly Mr. Sharon's preference to strengthen Israel's hold on this disputed land and again demonstrates the political strength of the settler movement among Israel's leadership.

This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has studied Mr. Sharon. He has fostered the proliferation of settlements throughout his political career and, as foreign minister in 1998, exhorted Jews with ties to the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria to "grab more hills" before a final peace treaty is negotiated with the Palestinians.

Israeli governments, conservative and liberal, have always maintained that any expansion of the settlements -- fenced, fortified, hilltop enclaves that benefit from hundreds of millions of dollars in government incentives, subsidies and security -- is a byproduct of natural growth. But the definition of natural growth varies from one government to the next.

It doesn't seem to matter that the majority of the Israeli public has little personal or political investment in the settlements. The settlements continue to fuel the dynamics of the present Palestinian uprising, and they remain targets for Palestinian assassins.

The Israeli government's continued investment in the settlements can't possibly enhance the country's political or economic well-being. Or the prospects for its future.

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