PRESIDENT BUSH'S decision to support Israel's retention of some West Bank settlements imposes a "new reality" on the Middle East peace process that contravenes decades of U.S. policy. America can no longer hold itself out as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute - the White House is siding with Israel on one of the most contentious issues in the conflict, the presence of Jewish settlements on land occupied by Israel after the 1967 war and claimed by Palestinians. With his decision, Mr. Bush has eviscerated the governing principle of the peace process - that a negotiated settlement between the two sides based on a land-for-peace formula would end the conflict.
By supporting Israel's hold on several settlement blocks, the United States is helping set the borders of the Jewish state and an independent Palestine. And the political reality is that those boundaries won't likely change - despite the loud objections of Palestinian leaders and Arab sympathizers.
The administration's shift in policy was announced Wednesday as Mr. Bush embraced Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposed withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a small area of the West Bank. Mr. Sharon's disengagement plan would end Israel's military presence in Gaza, where 1.4 million Palestinians live, and remove 7,500 settlers from their heavily guarded compounds. Four remote West Bank settlements also would be evacuated. Mr. Sharon, who views the plan as a security measure, considered U.S. support essential to getting his hard-line government to approve the plan.
The withdrawal would indeed be historic for Israel and Mr. Sharon, an architect of his country's settlement program. But Palestinian leaders have viewed the unilateral action as a way for Mr. Sharon to solidify Israel's hold on West Bank land, where 230,000 settlers live, and limit the size of a future Palestinian state. Mr. Bush's backing of the Gaza plan, Israel's presence in the West Bank and its refusal to repatriate Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war reaffirm that view.
The Palestinians, however, must realize that Yasser Arafat's refusal to crack down on the militant groups and their suicide bombers has contributed to Mr. Bush's stand and overshadowed their legitimate grievances. The president - not unlike the Israelis - views "security as the key to peace," and on that front, Palestinians have been ill-served by Mr. Arafat and his ineffectual and corrupt government.
Still, Mr. Bush cannot hold out the U.S.-sponsored road map to peace as the way to end the conflict, as he did Wednesday. Israel has no incentive now to freeze settlement activity as required by the road map. Nor can he continue to say that the United States won't "prejudice the outcome of final status negations" - it already has.