Settlements seen as key obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian progress

Following President Bush's visit to Israel and the Palestinian West Bank last week, most commentators are saying no real progress is likely without U.S. pressure on Israel to halt its settlements in the West Bank.

In a teleconference just after the Annapolis conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last November, Americans for Peace Now founder Mark Rosenblum singled out the Israeli settlements as a key 'strategic obstacle to peace.' Arguing that a peace agreement is in Israel's own security interests, Rosenblum, head of the Jewish Studies program at Queens College in New York, said Israel has to 'choose security over settlements.'

As Bush began his Middle East visit, Rafi Dajani, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, told CNN that the settlements are 'the most important obstacle to emerge since Annapolis.'

'Without addressing the issue of settlements there can be no Palestinian state,' Dajani emphasized. 'What is even more ironic,' he said, 'without addressing the issue of settlements, Israel's very future, its existence as a state, is endangered.'

Yet immediately after Annapolis, the Israel government moved to expand settlements in the east Jerusalem area.

And the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli Defense Ministry is seeking to block publication of an official report showing that the extent of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is greater than Israel has previously admitted.

One of the Israeli groups trying to publish the report, Peace Now, said that since 2003, when Israel made a commitment not to build new settlements and to dismantle unauthorized settlement 'outposts' under the 'road map' agreement, 122 government-authorized settlements were built in the West Bank, and another 100 outposts were built with tacit government support. Currently some 450,000 Israeli settlers live on Palestinian land in the West Bank, particularly concentrated around Palestinian east Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under heavy pressure from far-right parties not to make any concessions on settlements. But many Israelis want such concessions. Haaretz criticized Olmert for 'cowardice' in refusing to stand up to right-wing settlers.

In Jerusalem last week, Bush called on Israel to dismantle unauthorized outposts, although he did not challenge construction or expansion of other settlements. Following Bush's visit, Olmert declared it a 'disgrace' that dozens of outposts were still standing. But just days after Bush's visit, Agence France Press reported that Israel has begun constructing 66 new homes in an east Jerusalem settlement.

Bush drew modest praise for some of his statements in Jerusalem, but most commentators questioned their impact. Former U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross told PBS' Charlie Rose that Bush had largely reiterated things he has said before, but Israelis and Palestinians are concerned that 'we're not seeing anything on the ground. The publics have to see something that's different.'

Bush called for an end to the 40-year Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, and said negotiations 'must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent.' While suggesting that Palestinian refugees might deserve compensation, he stirred controversy by speaking of establishment of 'Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people.' Many Palestinians see this as dismissing their claim for recognition of a right of return to lands within the boundaries of Israel, even if negotiations result in a combination of compensation and return.

Ghassan Khatib, who previously served as Palestinian planning minister representing the Palestinian People's Party, called Bush's statements 'not at all helpful.' Bush 'dismissed the legal right of return of Palestinian refugees' by suggesting that establishing a Palestinian state would resolve all the refugees' issues, Khatib said in a bitterlemons.org commentary. He criticized Bush for expressing 'near-formal acceptance of the illegally built Israeli settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank,' and for referring to Israel as a 'Jewish state,' calling it a slap not only at the rights of Palestinian refugees, but also at the Arabs who make up 20 percent of Israel's population. 'Such positions from the U.S. will only serve to defer and preempt attempts at resolution' based on a two-state solution, Khatib said.

M.J. Rosenberg, policy analyst for the New York-based Israel Policy Forum, which advocates a two-state solution, said, 'The Bush visit won't rate more than a footnote in the history books unless real changes occur on the ground fast.'

While applauding some of Bush's rhetoric, Rosenberg wrote in his weekly commentary that progress will require sustained U.S. efforts and 'an end to the subversion of peace efforts' by far-right elements in the U.S. He criticized presidential candidates for invoking the 'change mantra' on every topic except Israeli-Palestinian issues and for hiding 'behind ritualistic 'pro-Israel' formulas.'

'Candidates fear that the only people who care deeply about the issue are those who want Israel to hold on to the West Bank forever and never, ever, to concede anything to the Palestinians,' Rosenberg said. Such people constitute 'only a small minority of the pro-Israel community,' but they 'speak much louder than the pro-negotiations majority and also carry a much bigger stick. Candidates fear crossing them. And Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans have all paid a heavy price for that timidity.'

Rosenberg added, 'Since 2000 Israelis and Palestinians have been enduring violence, terrorism, and hopelessness. As for the United States, continuation of the conflict has done terrible injury to all of our interests in the region. Even some Israeli hardliners are saying it.'