Fresh from military victory over Iraq, President Bush is now trying to broker a peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He is being pressured to intervene by Arab states, whose help he needs in rebuilding postwar Iraq. By all accounts, he faces a considerable challenge in which his own political future may also be at stake.
Last month, President Bush confirmed in a dramatic way his commitment to a permanent solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the three-way summit in Aqaba, Jordan, where he met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Ariel Sharon and Abu Mazen. The meeting lent support to the American sponsored plan for an overall peace in the Middle East called the Roadmap. It specifies the steps for Israelis and Palestinians to take to reach a final settlement under the guidance of the so-called Quartet — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia.
A major obstacle to any peace agreement is the issue of Jewish settlements. The Roadmap calls for a freeze on their growth and their eventual removal to make way for a Palestinian state. Settlements vary in size and population, from growing towns of thousands of residents and condominiums in Palestinian neighborhoods to makeshift tents on barren hills.
Today, roughly 150 settlements, with an estimated population of 226,000 cover large swaths of the area.
Settlements have grown under all Israeli governments, both of the left and right, purportedly for security reasons. But many Palestinians and even some leading Israelis say the real intention is to divide Palestinian territories into isolated enclaves, instead of keeping them in a contiguous state.
Although past and present U.S. governments have challenged these settlements as illegitimate and adverse to the peace process, they continue to spread.
Jean AbiNader, managing director of the Arab American Institute in Washington, compares Israeli settlements backed by military force, to the past apartheid policies of white South Africa. “The settlements are the most visible signs of Israel’s occupation,” he says. “That and the closures. But, if there weren’t any closures, the settlements would still divide up Palestinian lands into the same situation we had in Bantustanland in South Africa. I think the settlements are the major political obstacle. Sharon’s government has to decide peace is more important than settlements.”
Adding to the problem is the construction underway of a 350 kilometer long and about eight meter high concrete barrier along the border between Israel and the West Bank, that Israel calls a separation fence. Most Palestinians view it as yet another attempt to deprive them of their homeland.
Moshe Ma-oz, who served as an adviser to former Israeli President Ezer Weizman, says the politician most responsible for the settlements is now in charge of removing them.
“Mr. Sharon is the architect of the settlements,” he says, “and only a few years ago when he was foreign minister, he said to the settlers – ‘go settle each hilltop that you can find.’ He built settlements behind the back of President Weizman when he was agricultural minister. And when he became defense minister in the 1980s, he built them extensively. He did not hide that he wanted to settle. At the time he was talking of increasing the settlement with about 200,000 settlers in order to prevent the creation of the Palestinian state. This is his agenda, and I don’t see that it has changed, although he said he supported the peace plan in Aqaba.”
But, Ian Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, believes that Prime Minister Sharon has taken some encouraging first steps.
“We’ve had many of these diplomatic minuets,” he says. “This one looks to be very significant because of the high profile participation of the American president in it and because of Ariel Sharon’s reputation not just for extremism but for his reputation for ruthlessness in doing anything he decides he has to do, including, perhaps, move dramatically toward peace. We can see already that an important element has taken place. Sharon has made it public that the vision those settlements were attached to, namely Israeli rule over the whole area, Israel can’t nor should sustain; that it is morally corrupting, economically unsustainable, and from a political and security point of view – dangerous.”
Dismantling the settlements is not beyond reach, says professor Lustick. Recent public opinion polls show about 70 % of Israelis support the Saudi peace initiative that seeks the settlements be dismantled. With the right economic incentives, Mr. Lustick believes a large number of settlers could be persuaded to return to Israel.
“The governments of prime ministers (Menahem) Begin, (Yitzhak) Shamir and (Benjamin) Netanyahu could not convince Israelis to move to those areas in large numbers without essentially bribing them,” he says. “Right now you can actually get free land if you move to some West Bank settlements, as much as you can cultivate. So if these settlers, maybe 80 % of them, moved into these areas for economic reasons, they certainly can be encouraged to move back.”
But, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America in New York, says the Palestinian terrorist groups must be dismantled before the settlements, and asks, “Why should Israelis have to move in the first place?”
“We are completely opposed to this demand that Jews can’t live in a place where Arabs live,” he says. “If a million-and-a-half Arabs can live in Israel, why can’t 200,000 Jews live in Palestinian territories? I think there will be enormous opposition in Israel to forcibly remove the Jews from their homes. I don’t think that this can work, and I think that it is a policy that is both racist and ethnically discriminatory.”
Persuading or pressuring the settlers to pick up and leave will be a major undertaking. But David Makovsky of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy says the Roadmap makes this possible by cracking down on extremists at the beginning of the process instead of putting it off.
“We are hopeful that this cease-fire takes root,” he says, “and it will ultimately have to lead to a showdown with Hamas and Islamic Jihad elements. Both sides will have to take tough measures against extremists for this to succeed. It is healthier that people take on some of the rejectionists first. The old view was once you get an agreement, then you deal with the rejectionists. But we have seen that the rejectionists can block any agreement.”
Mr. Makovsky says it is crucial for the new Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen to stand up to Palestinian extremists who reject any peace plan as well as Israel itself:
“This is a huge question,” he says, “because I fear there is going to be internal sabotage. I think that Abu Mazen needs to gain strength. Hopefully, the cease-fire will help him in that regard. There will also be an improvement in Palestinian life, and with that improvement and with the international community on the lookout and vigilant that this sabotage does not happen, there is a chance. With Abu Mazen there is a partner on the Palestinian side that you haven’t had.”
If the peace does progress and the settlers begin to return to Israel, most experts believe that the abandoned settlements would then be able to absorb thousands of Palestinian refugees, thus easing another critical point of friction between the two sides.