April 17, 2003

Get tough on illegal Jewish settlements

by Jay Bookman

The interests of the United States and Israel run parallel on many issues, which is hardly surprising. Politically, economically, culturally and militarily, the two nations share a long-standing special relationship that ought to be nurtured.

Inevitably, though, American and Israeli interests must at some point diverge in an important way. Such a time is fast approaching. In the weeks to come, if U.S. officials prove unwilling to pursue an American-based policy, a policy that reflects U.S. needs, U.S. values and U.S. goals, our national interests will suffer, and so will the prospects for peace.

The issue in dispute is Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. In outlining his approach to a Mideast peace settlement, President Bush has wisely demanded a halt to those settlements, which are illegal under international law, violate repeated United Nations resolutions, and represent an immoral attempt to dispossess a downtrodden people.

The right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, however, is very much committed to expanding those settlements. Like a substantial minority of his fellow Israelis, Sharon sees the settlements as a means of expanding Israel's borders until they include all the lands promised to the ancient Israelites by God in the Old Testament.

To those who share that particular vision, the presence of millions of Palestinians is just a temporary inconvenience that will be overcome in God's time. Just a week ago, with much of the world's attention diverted by the war in Iraq, the Sharon government quietly blessed the creation of the first Jewish settlement in Arab Jerusalem since it was conquered in 1967.

The proposal to ban Jewish settlement growth is a key part of a peace plan drafted jointly by the Bush administration, the United Nations, Russia and our European allies. That plan, called the road map, also calls for an end to Palestinian terrorism, which has proved just as hard to stop as settlements.

Over the past two years, though, the Palestinians have paid a deservedly heavy price for their embrace of brutal terrorism. In retaliation for those attacks, Israel has employed its overwhelming military power to crush the Palestinian resistance and destroy much of its economy. The European Union and other backers of an eventual Palestinian state have also withdrawn critical financial aid. The result is a chastened Palestine, symbolized by the decision to strip President Yasser Arafat of at least some of his power and invest it in a more moderate prime minister.

Israel, in contrast, has paid no price for its insistence on continuing settlements. We Americans supply that country with billions of dollars a year in economic and military aid, but we have used none of that leverage to force a change in its behavior. The extent of the official U.S. response to the new Israeli settlement in Arab Jerusalem was particularly telling: A minor State Department official was assigned the duty of complaining that it was "simply inconsistent" with the president's plan. No kidding.

The situation is particularly important because in Arab eyes, the American taxpayer is subsidizing those illegal settlements and helping to supply the arms needed to subdue the Palestinians. It's hard to convince the Arabs otherwise, largely because they're right.

If our high-risk gamble to remake the Middle East is to have any chance of paying off, we must show a willingness to force concessions and hard decisions on Israel. That is particularly true on the issue of settlements, in which Israeli security is not at stake and official Israeli policy is so clearly wrong. Even a majority of Israelis believe settlements should be ended, but for political reasons that policy is firmly in the grasp of a more fanatic minority.

Breaking that grip will be difficult. In a column last week in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, Danny Rubinstein regretfully predicted that "there is not a chance that the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will even get anywhere near this road map."

"A social and political earthquake in Israel will be needed to stop the development of the settlements and to freeze their growth," Rubinstein concludes.

President Bush has the power to supply such an earthquake.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor.

© 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution