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It all comes down to Israeli settlements

Toronto Star 28.4.2002
This is an editorial that appeared in the New York Times on Friday, April 26.

OPINION - LATE LAST week, senior Israeli army officers called for uprooting several dozen isolated Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip because of the military burden involved in protecting them. Even though the proposal was focused on Israeli security interests, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon angrily dismissed it at a cabinet meeting, saying that as long as he was in power there would be no discussion of removing a single settlement.

It is hard to imagine a more dispiriting statement for those hoping for a negotiated land-for-peace end to hostilities in the Middle East. If Sharon sticks to this view he will leave little hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

We recognize that this is an exceptionally painful moment in a region where the focus has been on death and human suffering rather than on land. But ultimately this dispute is over land.

Just as terror is the greatest Palestinian threat to Middle East peace, so are settlements on territory captured in the 1967 war the greatest Israeli obstacle to peace. They deprive the Palestinians of prime land and water, break up Palestinian geographic continuity, are hard to defend against Palestinian attack and complicate the establishment of a clear, secure Israeli border.

Before the Oslo peace process began in 1993, settlements were a major American concern. The first President George Bush threatened to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees from Israel if it did not freeze its settlement building. The hostility between him and Yitzhak Shamir, then prime minister, over this issue contributed to Shamir's defeat at the hands of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992.

But for nearly a decade, settlements have earned little American attention. Since Israel and the Palestinians were engaged in peace negotiations, it was assumed that eventually many if not most of the settlements would go, and it was easier not to cause a political crisis by pressuring the Israelis right before a full peace agreement had been reached.

The Oslo peace talks broke down, of course, and while primary responsibility for the collapse rests with Yasser Arafat, the settler population in the West Bank and Gaza has nearly doubled, to more than 200,000. This is an immense problem.

Two decades ago, most Israelis considered the settlers to be oddballs spurred by messianism and nostalgia for the derring-do of Zionist pioneers.

A few thousand and then a few tens of thousands set up cheap mobile homes on windswept hillsides and vowed to double their number. But by the early 1990s, when Sharon served as housing minister, the situation had changed radically. Aided by government subsidies and other inducements, there were more than 100,000 settlers.

For Israelis, settlers were no longer zealots but ordinary fellow citizens. Suddenly their plumber or doctor or neighbour's sister was living in a big semi-detached house in a community on land captured in 1967. Many Israeli maps stopped demarcating the former border.

Today, the biggest settlements are real towns, with tens of thousands of inhabitants, major access roads, neighbourhoods, shopping malls, industrial parks, even a university. This is in addition to some 200,000 other Israeli Jews who live in neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem also captured in 1967. Palestinians consider these to be settlements as well.

In the year that Sharon has been prime minister, some 35 new settlement outposts have been established, in contravention of his coalition agreement with the Labour party. Opinion polls show strong Israeli public support for removal of some settlements in exchange for peace, a position embraced by previous Israeli governments. Yet Sharon refuses to consider such a move.

Sharon has said he is willing to make "painful compromises" for peace, and has called for a regional peace conference. He has welcomed the Saudi peace framework, which posits the return of all land captured in 1967 in exchange for full diplomatic ties with the Arab world.

But to take out of negotiation even the most isolated settlements — this week Sharon said Netzarim, a Gaza settlement, was the same to him as Tel Aviv — is to undermine the possibility that following his military action, a meaningful political dialogue can begin. The Israeli public and the American government must not turn away from this painful reality. The Palestinian and Arab leadership must also realize that the longer the Palestinians rely on terrorism and fail to return to negotiation, the harder it will be to remove these ``facts on the ground.''