Friday, Aug. 27, 2004

West Bank Settlements: Wrong turn on road map

Building more housing units in West Bank settlements may be a smart, even necessary, domestic political move for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who recently put out a call for construction bids. His plan to unilaterally disengage Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip continues to face opposition from hard-line members of his own Likud party and from others in his governing coalition. But President Bush only further undercut his own rutted peace plan, known as the "road map," by recently reversing his earlier, public stance and quietly approving of Sharon's plan, which would result in more settlers in the West Bank.

There is an unmistakable fork in that road map. One path leads to the dramatic, unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, leaving Palestinians fully in charge of running a government and improving Palestinians' lives. Already, Palestinian politicians seem moved by their impending responsibility: Debate has intensified about Yasir Arafat's failed transition from guerilla chief to substantive political leader. Top Palestinian thinkers know how much their hopes for a bigger, more contiguous, and fairer Palestinian homeland could be hurt if Gaza is rife with corruption and ineptitude, and if it becomes a base for terrorist attacks on Israel. They are justified in disliking the way Sharon has forced his plan upon them. But it is in Palestinians' own interests to make the best of it - especially since they bear great responsibility for the failure of earlier peace plans.

The other fork in the road map, though blocked by huge obstacles, is the dim hope that, still, both sides will return to negotiating a Palestinian homeland and a secure Israel. The cornerstone of the road map is simultaneous trust-building actions from the two foes to move toward a two-state solution. Neither side has lived up to its obligations under the road map. Palestinians did not contain terrorism; Sharon has not frozen settlement growth. The prime minister deserves more credit than he is getting for facing down the Israeli right wing by disbanding settlements in Gaza. But his attempts to single-handedly set the borders of a Palestinian state clouds that achievement.

Sharon, and Bush by supporting him, has taken away a vital negotiation point, by deeming the largest West Bank settlements as facts of Israel's geography. The divide between Israelis and Palestinians grows still more when Sharon and Bush make thin excuses for justifying building housing units in existing settlements. Here is the message Bush keeps sending: Sharon will not have to make concessions for peace. That is a terribly wrong message.

Bush may be trying to bolster Sharon's political future in Israel and his own reelection at home, but he is doing it at the expense of shoveling more dirt on the road map he supported.

© 2004 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources