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Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010


Freeze the settlements

Only a month after peace talks resumed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, they face their first crisis. Palestinians are demanding that Israel extend the self-imposed freeze on the construction on settlements in the West Bank; failure to do so would mean Palestinian withdrawal from the talks.

For the Israelis who seek borders that look like the Biblical version of their country, that is fine. For the rest of Israel, Palestinians and millions more people throughout the Middle East, such a move would be a disaster.

It is estimated that about 500,000 Israeli Jews live in settlements scattered across territory that Israel seized from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. About five times as many Palestinians — some 2.5 million people — live on the same land. The settlements are an attempt to cope with an expanding Jewish population in Israel as well as fulfill the dream of re-creating a Jewish state whose size and borders look like that of Biblical Israel.

That their dream is a nightmare for the millions of people who already live on that land (and would have to be expelled) and violates international law — the World Court has ruled the settlements illegal; Israel disagrees — matters not a whit.

In November 2009, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imposed a freeze on housing starts on West Bank settlements. He had been pressured by the Obama administration to halt construction to help entice Palestinians back to the negotiating table after a nearly two-year gap in peace talks. The freeze was limited: If construction had begun, it could continue. But that gesture was enough to get the Palestinians to resume talks.

Unfortunately, the moratorium expired at the end of September, just after the talks resumed and Mr. Netanyahu has little inclination to see it extended. While some observers insist that the prime minister is a man of peace who would like to conclude a deal as part of his legacy, his past behavior suggests otherwise. Mr. Netanyahu has long been a maximalist who favors unilateral solutions to negotiated compromises.

The building of settlements is an attempt to create "facts on the ground" that make territorial compromises for peace — at least concessions by Israel — much harder to achieve. Settler groups said they would begin construction on new homes as soon as the moratorium expired. A religious holiday in Israel has kept that promise from being fulfilled.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said that he cannot continue the peace talks if the construction resumes. Mr. Netanyahu insists that the future of the settlements should be a subject of the peace talks, rather than a precondition of them.

The United States is urging Mr. Netanyahu to extend the moratorium for another 60 days, in exchange for security and political guarantees. He needs to make a decision quickly, as the Arab League met on Friday to provide guidance for Mr. Abbas.

More than just the peace talks rides on Mr. Netanyahu's decision. While he has a comfortable majority in the Knesset — 74 seats in the 120-seat parliament — his coalition is deeply divided, as it includes the left-leaning Labor party, which favors the freeze, and several ultranationalist groups that do not.

If the prime minister truly wants peace, he would extend the moratorium, even if that means his coalition would break up. He could then reach out to the leading opposition party, the left-leaning Kadima, to create a grand coalition.

There are two problems with that theory. First, it assumes that Mr. Netanyahu wants a peace deal. Second, it assumes that Kadima would join such a coalition. There is little indication that either assumption is true. For its part, Kadima seems to prefer to lead its own government.

The resumption of construction has the potential to shift political dynamics. The decision to proceed would look like a deliberate provocation to Palestinians, Arabs and the United States. It would confirm hardline views of Israeli intentions. News that the Palestine Liberation Organization and Fatah, the largest faction of Palestinians, have formed a joint committee to discuss the prospects for a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood signals that the room for compromise is narrowing. Reports that this group is seeking to reconcile with Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, are also worrying.

Israel has faced a basic choice for over 40 years. It can have peace with its neighbors or it can have the territories it seized in the 1967 war. The latter may nurture dreams of a modern Jewish state, but it will also ensure enduring conflict.

Of course, no territorial swap alone will guarantee Israel's peace and security. But negotiations and compromise over territory are an essential step toward that goal.

It would seem that the choice is clear. At a minimum, the settlement freeze must be extended, to truly give negotiations with the Palestinians a chance.

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