Settlements seen as key obstacle to peace

Despite President Bush’s much-publicized visit to Israel and the Palestinian West Bank this month, most commentators say no peace progress is likely without U.S. pressure on Israel to halt its settlements in the West Bank. Now escalating tensions between Israel and Palestinian Gaza, and a mounting humanitarian crisis for Gaza’s 1.5 million residents blockaded by Israel, threaten to torpedo peace talks, many fear.

Following November’s Annapolis conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Americans for Peace Now founder Mark Rosenblum singled out the Israeli settlements as a key “strategic obstacle to peace.” Arguing that a peace agreement is in Israel’s own security interests, Rosenblum, head of the Jewish Studies program at Queens College in New York, said Israel has to “choose security over settlements.”

Yet immediately after Annapolis, the Israeli government moved to expand settlements in the east Jerusalem area.

This month, Rafi Dajani, American Task Force on Palestine executive director, called the settlements “the most important obstacle to emerge since Annapolis.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli Defense Ministry is seeking to block publication of an official report showing that the extent of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is greater than Israel has previously admitted.

According to the Israeli Peace Now group, since 2003, when Israel promised not to build new settlements and to dismantle unauthorized settlement “outposts” under the “road map” agreement, 122 government-authorized settlements were built in the West Bank, and another 100 outposts were built with tacit government support. Currently some 450,000 Israeli settlers live on Palestinian land in the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under heavy pressure from far-right parties to make no concessions on settlements. But many Israelis want such concessions. Haaretz criticized Olmert for “cowardice” in refusing to stand up to right-wing settlers.

In Jerusalem, Bush called on Israel to dismantle outposts, but did not challenge construction or expansion of other settlements. Just days after Bush’s visit, Agence France Press reported that Israel had begun constructing 66 new homes in an east Jerusalem settlement.

Bush drew modest praise for some of his statements in Jerusalem, but most commentators questioned their impact.

Bush called for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, and said negotiations “must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized and defensible borders and … that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent.” While suggesting that Palestinian refugees might deserve compensation, he stirred controversy by speaking of establishment of “Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people.” Many Palestinians saw this as dismissing their claim for recognition of a right of return to lands within the boundaries of Israel, even if negotiations result in a combination of compensation and return.

Ghassan Khatib, who previously served as Palestinian planning minister representing the Palestinian People’s Party, called Bush’s statements “not at all helpful.” Bush “dismissed the legal right of return of Palestinian refugees” by suggesting that establishing a Palestinian state would resolve all the refugees’ issues, Khatib said in a bitterlemons.org commentary. He criticized Bush for expressing “near-formal acceptance of the illegally built Israeli settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank,” and said referring to Israel as a “Jewish state” was a slap not only at the rights of Palestinian refugees, but also at the Arabs who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population.

“Such positions from the U.S. will only serve to defer and preempt attempts at resolution” based on a two-state solution, Khatib said.

M.J. Rosenberg, policy analyst for the New York-based Israel Policy Forum, which advocates a two-state solution, applauded some of Bush’s rhetoric but said, “The Bush visit won’t rate more than a footnote in the history books unless real changes occur on the ground fast.”

In his weekly commentary, Rosenberg called for “an end to the subversion of peace efforts” by far-right elements in the U.S. He criticized presidential candidates for hiding “behind ritualistic ‘pro-Israel’ formulas.”

“Candidates fear that the only people who care deeply about the issue are those who want Israel to hold on to the West Bank forever and never, ever, to concede anything to the Palestinians,” Rosenberg wrote. Such people constitute “only a small minority of the pro-Israel community,” but “speak much louder than the pro-negotiations majority and also carry a much bigger stick. Candidates fear crossing them. And Israelis, Palestinians and Americans have all paid a heavy price for that timidity.”

Rosenberg added, “Since 2000 Israelis and Palestinians have been enduring violence, terrorism and hopelessness. As for the United States, continuation of the conflict has done terrible injury to all of our interests in the region. Even some Israeli hardliners are saying it.”

suewebb@pww.org