If the United States were as adamant about pressuring Israel to get rid of its settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as it has been on the Palestinians to get rid of Yasser Arafat, the prospects for peace would be a lot better these days.
The settlements - many of which are huge towns occupied by some 200,000 Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza - are as great an impediment to peace as Arafat is.
Taking a genuine, forceful stand against them would not reflect a new policy of the United States. Every U.S. administration since that of Lyndon Johnson, who was president when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war, has made it clear that the United States opposes Israeli settlements in what it considers occupied territory.
And every Israeli government since that of Levi Eshkol, who was Israeli prime minister in 1967, to the present government of Ariel Sharon - without exception - has built Jewish or expanded settlements in the occupied territories. The construction of these settlements, for a variety of stated reasons - from security to Biblical right - has been carried out in defiance of the will of most states that are friendly to Israel and in defiance of the purported will of its greatest economic and military benefactor, the United States.
Not a single American president has had the temerity to carry through on a threat to cut off money to the Israeli government for as long as Israel continues the settlement of what most of the world views as captured Arab land. While successive Israeli governments have received tens upon tens of billions of dollars in economic and military aid, they have persisted in defying the U.S. policy.
Instead, for the past 35 years the relationship on this issue has been like it is on so many issues in the Middle East: winks and nods which make it clear to everyone else that the United States does not mean what it says, or certainly does not intend to put real force behind its position.
Sharon offered up the most recent example of the wink and the nod last Sunday. Having acknowledged the impediment that settlements are to the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, he had sent Israeli troops to dismantle some "unauthorized" Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Most of the world outside of the religious-nationalist settlers and their avid supporters in the Sharon government hold that all the settlements are unauthorized under international law. So, to call the recently dismantled outposts unauthorized seems a peculiar distinction intended to legitimize the rest.
The wink came at last Sunday's Israeli Cabinet meeting thatwhen Sharon told the cabinet Israel would go ahead and build in the occupied territories - quietly, though. "Just build, but just don't publicize it," a Cabinet official quoted him as saying in an article by Peter Hermann, The Sun's correspondent in Jerusalem.
Given the Machiavellian nature of politics in the region and Sharon's reputation in particular, one may hear the argument in his defense that he said that to only his Cabinet to mollify his most obdurate ministers. But that raises the question: To whom does Sharon tell the truth? Ever?
Governments of Israel always have asserted that money used to build and support the settlements does not come from U.S. aid. But Israel receives more aid from the United States than any other country in the world receives. It also is the beneficiary of enormous private tax-deductible contributions from Americans. To argue that the foreign aid and the private contributions do not help Israel to use other money to build the settlements and to subsidize their inhabitants is absurd. It is as absurd as it would be to say that some generous benefactor paying my mortgage and my food bill had nothing to do with my ability to buy and maintain an otherwise unaffordable car or boat.
In addition to costing the government and the people of Israel a fortune in construction and infrastructure, the settlements are a burden in other ways to many Israelis who do not support them. A vast network of roads has been built to offer safe travel among them. Israeli soldiers are compelled to defend them and more than 500 Israeli reservists and active-duty soldiers have refused to so, often going to prison for that refusal.
Those soldiers are not the only Israelis who object to the settlements and to the ultra-religious among them who, unlike all other Israelis, do not even serve in the military.
In a conversation in Jerusalem late last year, Avrum Burg, a prominent peace advocate in the Israeli Parliament, explained the settlement impulse as a reaction in 1967 to "the 19 years of feeling besieged ... [and] the feeling that, `Wow, it's ours, so let's go continue the Zionist movement.'"
In Burg's view, though, this led to disaster for Israel. Settlements, he said, "have been Israel's primary sin."