Bush must do his part

February 15, 2005|By Trudy Rubin

SHOULD WE BE hopeful that there is a new opening for peace between Palestinians and Israelis? Past Israeli-Palestinian summits (and truces) have led downhill, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has yet to prove he can control Islamist groups such as Hamas. Yet there is a sliver of hope for peace under certain conditions.

Prime among them is whether President Bush wants to make progress toward Mideast peace part of his legacy. If he is serious about advancing his "vision" of two states side by side, there might be real movement before his term ends. If the administration sits on the sidelines for the next year - and all indications point in this direction - the bubble of optimism will evaporate fairly soon. Why so?

Because Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and Mr. Abbas have very different expectations about what should follow their truce. Strong U.S. guidance will be needed to keep them on track.

Mr. Abbas is trying to stop all Palestinian acts of violence against Israelis. This is called for by the "road map," an international peace plan Mr. Bush has endorsed

The road map also calls for the freezing of any new construction in Israeli settlements simultaneous with the Palestinian crackdown on violence. In addition, it mandates the immediate removal of scores of illegal Israeli outposts.

In reality, expansion of Jewish settlements continues apace on the West Bank, in ways that could soon foreclose the option of a viable Palestinian state.

Palestinians won't continue to back Mr. Abbas' efforts to curb Hamas unless they believe it is leading to negotiations. They may accept a delay in resuming peace talks. But they will reject Mr. Abbas' strategy if Mr. Sharon keeps shifting the goalposts during the game.

Drive around the West Bank - as I did recently - and you can see construction cranes expanding settlements and settler roads.

From the town of Nirit, on the Israeli side of the 1967 border with the West Bank, I could see Israel's security fence nearly two miles away and, on the far side of it, the Israeli settlement of Alfei Menashe. I watched two huge yellow Israeli cranes digging up the soil between the fence and the Israeli border to add to a row of new two-story houses. The apparent purpose of the construction is to fill in the area between the fence and the 1967 border and to create a solid block of Jewish settlement that links Alfei Menashe and Nirit.

Amira Bahat, an Israeli resident of Nirit, told me the purpose of the construction was to blur the 1967 border.

The reality is that the future boundaries of Israel are being changed not through negotiation, but on the ground.

Wait, you say, isn't Mr. Sharon committed to withdrawing troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip, along with four isolated settlements in the West Bank? Yes. Doesn't that mean he will be willing to give up more West Bank settlements? Not necessarily.

Most Palestinians believe the words of Mr. Sharon's key adviser, Dov Weisglass, about the purpose of the Gaza withdrawal: He said Israel was pulling out of Gaza in order to strengthen the settlements on the West Bank. Palestinians fear Gaza first will be Gaza last.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on her recent visit to Israel that the administration didn't support "the expansion of settlements ... so that it looks as if there's [a] continued effort to create facts on the ground." But mere remarks won't slow the expansion.

That will take a tete-a-tete in which Mr. Bush delivers a clear message to Mr. Sharon: Freezing settlements won't threaten Israel's security. It will keep the goalposts fixed until Mr. Abbas puts an end to terror and peace talks can resume.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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