A hold on settlements

August 08, 2004

THE ISRAELI government disputed reports last week that it planned to expand a large West Bank settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The housing ministry spokesman didnM-Ft deny the report; he said there were no immediate plans. ItM-Fs the kind of distinction that belies the governmentM-Fs true intentions when it comes to securing key West Bank settlements for Israel in any future peace deal.

Expanding Maaleh Adumim, the largest settlement on the West Bank, isnM-Ft about providing more housing within an easy commute to Jerusalem, though the reported proposal would do that. ItM-Fs about expanding the contour of greater Jerusalem and, therefore, Israel. ItM-Fs about securing IsraelM-Fs hold on the West Bank and frustrating Palestinian efforts to gain a state on the disputed land. ItM-Fs about strengthening IsraelM-Fs hand during negotiations to end a 37-year occupation.

Although the peace process is at a stalemate, the U.S.-backed road map calls for a halt to settlement expansion and a removal of settler outposts that keep popping up on West Bank hilltops. That has been the United StatesM-F position, and the State DepartmentM-Fs strong words last week reaffirmed that. And yet the White House has been extremely solicitous of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, supporting his intention to keep major settlements in any peace agreement with the Palestinians and applauding his plan to withdraw Israelis from the Gaza Strip.

But Mr. SharonM-Fs decision to unilaterally extricate Israel from the embattled Gaza Strip shouldnM-Ft mean he gets a pass on Jewish settlements on the West Bank. The Sharon governmentM-Fs record on settlements fits the prime ministerM-Fs legacy as an architect of the settlement movement, and not this newer image of a prime minister who has rebuffed pro-settlement hard-liners in his government in pursuit of peace.

A study last month by the anti-settlement group Peace Now reported that settlements expanded at a brisk pace in the beginning of the Sharon term, including in the Gaza Strip. It found that settlements and settler outposts had consumed an additional 100 acres in the first half of this year. Manned by members of the hard-core religious settler movement, the outposts are clearly in violation of the road map.

The Palestinian Authority may be in disarray, its leadership ineffectual and morally bankrupt, but Palestinians deserve a chance to negotiate an end to this conflict and to have something substantive to negotiate about. Anything less than a freeze on settlements would favor one side over the other and exacerbate resolution of a conflict marked by history, religion and violence.

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