No should be no

April 08, 2005

IF THE BUSH administration wants to stop settlement expansion in Israel, it will have to do more than complain about it. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives in the United States on Sunday for meetings with President Bush after staunchly defending plans to expand a Jerusalem-area settlement and connect it to the capital, a move that would isolate West Bank Palestinians from the holy city. Criticism from Mr. Bush or his secretary of state won't deter Mr. Sharon, although the prime minister acknowledged recently to his Cabinet that such news puts the Americans "in a very difficult spot." That said, the building is certain to proceed.

Israel's sympathetic indifference to Mr. Bush's "no expansion of the settlements" suggests another dynamic at play: Build if you want, but don't expect us to keep quiet about it. As long as America's political and economic support holds, Israel can take the criticism. If that's the understanding, it's unacceptable.

Promoting settlement expansion during this recent period of relative calm undermines good-faith efforts by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to end the violence of the past five years and return to the peace process. It's a poke in the eye, an expression of superiority in a process that many Middle Easterners already view as biased toward Israel. Perpetuating that view doesn't advance Mr. Bush's desire to improve the image of the United States in the Muslim world.

As it is, Mr. Bush has already acquiesced to Israel's intention to retain large settlement blocs outside Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in deference to Mr. Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip. That gentlemen's agreement -- announced during Mr. Sharon's visit last spring -- will mean a smaller independent state for Palestinians, who claim the West Bank as their own. Israeli settlement expansion contravenes the U.S.-backed "road map to peace."

During Mr. Sharon's visit to the Bush ranch, the president should persuade the Israeli leader to desist, and he should tie U.S. financial support for the Gaza withdrawal to it. In the absence of consequences, Mr. Bush's strong protestations carry little weight.

The recent calm has provided a much-welcome respite from the death and violence of the past five years. It should not be taken for granted. Both Israel and the Palestinian leadership have contributed to the renewed sense of hope. Mr. Sharon has cleared the last government hurdle in carrying out his planned withdrawal of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, a historic step that will give Palestinians autonomy there. Neither side should jeopardize the progress so far.

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