A surrender to Sharon

WITH THE WORLD'S attention focused on Athens and Najaf, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is bent on expanding settlements in the West Bank by more than 1,000 new apartments and has plans for 1,000 more. The Bush administration, loath to lose the votes of any US supporters of the Sharon government in the November election, is going along with this move even though it would violate Bush's own road map for peace in the Mideast.

The settlement plans also serve a political purpose in Israel. Sharon has been opposed by his own Likud Party for proposing to give up Israel's Gaza Strip settlements. The new housing units in the West Bank are expected to help him shore up his backing in Likud.

In Israel's interpretation, the road map permits new construction in settlements as long as the structures are within a community's existing perimeter. The Bush administration has until now called for a freeze on all settlement activity, even to accommodate natural growth caused by an increase in birth rates. The road map peace plan, the only one in play, has suffered in the past from Palestinian violence and Israel's unilateral decision to build a defensive barrier in the West Bank. The plan might not survive the betrayal of its spirit in Washington's tacit acceptance of Israeli settlement expansions there.

President Bush probably encouraged Sharon's willingness to build more housing on the West Bank with his statement on April 14 that "new realities on the ground" made it "unrealistic" for Israel to give up settlements it had established in or near big cities in the West Bank. Palestinians protested this statement, which ceded territory to Israel that the Palestinians hoped to exchange for Israeli concessions elsewhere.

The Palestinians have also strayed from the road map by their failure to stop anti-Israeli violence and propaganda and their inability to genuinely reform their government, especially by putting one ministry in charge of all security forces. For the most part, the Bush administration has been properly critical of these shortcomings.

But if the peace plan is to have any chance of progressing, the United States must also continue to be critical of Israeli actions that undercut it. Sharon's plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip will not advance peace if it is done without consultation with the Palestinians and with concessions to Likud in the form of expanded West Bank settlements.

The Bush administration's acquiescence in the West Bank expansions is a step backward on the road to peace. It will cost the United States support not just among peace-minded Israelis and Palestinians but among other nations as well, undermining Bush's ability to play the crucial role of honest broker in the Mideast.

© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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