Freeze This Settlement

Saturday, March 26, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH didn't leave much room for doubt about his position on Israeli settlement construction when he last addressed the issue. The government of Ariel Sharon "must freeze settlement activity," the president said in a speech to European leaders in Brussels in February. Moreover, he added, a Palestinian state "of scattered territories will not work." The large settlement expansion announced by Mr. Sharon's government this week grossly violates both those principles. Construction of the 3,500 new homes between the existing West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim and East Jerusalem, on what is now barren land, would contravene previous Israeli commitments to the Bush administration and the U.S.-sponsored "road map" for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. By sealing off Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods from the West Bank as well as a key north-south corridor, it also would make a contiguous Palestinian state practically impossible.

In that sense Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was only stating the obvious when she said on Thursday that the settlement plan was "at odds with American policy." It is, in fact, an important test of whether Mr. Bush will be willing to press Israel as well as the Palestinians to take the steps necessary to realize his vision of a two-state solution. In his first term, Mr. Bush almost never differed with Mr. Sharon: That was in part because the administration blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the continuing conflict and because the Israeli leader made a point of working closely with the White House. In this case, Mr. Sharon must have known that his new initiative might be troublesome. Though Mr. Bush agreed last April that Israel would keep some West Bank settlements in any final agreement, U.S. officials long have objected to Israeli plans to fill the gap between East Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, which is already the largest of the settlements. Doing so would complicate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the crucial question of Jerusalem's final status. It also would separate two large Palestinian areas on the West Bank from each other. An earlier Israeli attempt to begin construction on a police station in the area was halted last year after questions were raised about it.

Mr. Sharon may be trying to solve a short-term political problem: He is having a difficult time maintaining support in parliament and may be forced into an untimely election unless he can win over a few more deputies in the next week. But the Israeli leader also doesn't hide his ambition to retain all of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, and he has long advocated a Palestinian state made up of several enclaves separated by Israeli settlements. As Mr. Bush said, such one-sided solutions to territorial issues "won't work." The president will have to insist on that point with Mr. Sharon if the peace process he has called "our greatest opportunity" is to go forward.

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