Monday, March 27, 2006

Gwynne Dyer: Settlements block a lasting security

It's a trade-off," said Dror Etkes, director of the Israeli organisation Settlement Watch, just after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon carried out the dramatic withdrawal from the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip last August.

"The Gaza Strip for the settlement blocks; the Gaza Strip for Palestinian land; the Gaza Strip for unilaterally imposing borders. They don't know how long they've got. That's why they're building like maniacs."

But they are going to have lots of time: Ariel Sharon may be in a permanent coma, but his project is doing just fine.

The new party he founded, Kadima, will do extraordinarily well in the Israeli elections on tomorrow, probably winning almost as many seats as the two traditional major parties, Labour and Likud, combined.

The only question about the new government is whether Kadima will have to include either of those major parties in the new coalition.

Neither is there any doubt about what Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will do once he is Prime Minister in his own right, with a solid majority behind him. In far blunter terms than Sharon had used in recent years, Olmert sketched out the new government's policy last month.

"Reality today obliges us to separate ourselves from the Palestinians and to remodel the borders of the state of Israel," said Olmert, "and this is what I will do after the elections.

"This will force us to evacuate [some] territories held by the state of Israel [in the West Bank, but] we will hold on to the major settlement blocks. We will keep Jerusalem united. It is impossible to abandon control of the eastern borders of Israel."

In other words, there will be no more peace negotiations. The Palestinians will just have to live within the 680km of tall fences that mark out Israel's new borders, in a pseudo-state surrounded and almost cut in half by Israeli settlements.

The whole Jordan valley will stay in Israel's hands, cutting Palestinians off from the rest of the Arab world except for one Israel-controlled border crossing into Jordan at the Allenby Bridge and one that crosses into Egypt from the Gaza Strip.

The 200,000 Arabs living in the old city of Jerusalem are already cut off from the rest of the Palestinian territories by a ring of new Jewish suburbs and a maze of gates that they cannot pass through without magnetic cards.

New settlements linking the Jewish suburbs east of Jerusalem with the settlement block of Maale Adumim will push Israel's frontier most of the way across the West Bank in the centre, effectively cutting off the northern West Bank from the southern part.

All the big settlement blocks in the West Bank - Ariel, Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim - will formally become part of Israel, sheltering behind the walls that divide them from the misery and desperation on the other side.

Some isolated settlements will be abandoned, and the estimated 60,000 Jews who live in them will be moved to join the 185,000 people who already live in the bigger blocks.

The Israeli Army will police the areas that remain Palestinian, making incursions as necessary. And there you have it: the permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

Israelis justify this highly one-sided "solution" with the argument that there is nobody on the Palestinian side to negotiate with, and since the victory of the radical Hamas party in Palestinian elections two months ago that argument sounds more plausible.

But we arrived at this sorry situation because Israel was unwilling to negotiate fairly with any of the previous, more reasonable incarnations of the Palestinian leadership either. The settlements always got in the way

As former US president Jimmy Carter, who negotiated the 1978 Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt, wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last week, "The pre-eminent obstacle to peace is Israel's colonisation of Palestine. Israel's occupation of Palestine has obstructed a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land, regardless of whether Palestinians had no formalised government, one headed by Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas, or with Abbas as President and Hamas controlling the Parliament and Cabinet."

For 20 years, while one peace initiative after another died due to Israeli stalling and the patience of moderate Palestinians eroded, the settlements doubled and redoubled in population, taking up more and more Palestinian land. So now, since the Palestinians are too radical to talk to any more, the settlements must become part of Israel.

Most Israeli voters are willing to accept this logic at present, but it does not serve Israel's long-term security.

Now, Israel holds all the cards in the Middle East. Its Army and economy are incomparably stronger than those of its Arab neighbours. It has hundreds of nuclear weapons and they have none. And it has 110 per cent support from the United States, the world's only superpower.

But a prudent Israeli leader would conclude that now is therefore the right time to make a permanent peace with the Arabs, including the Palestinians, because nobody can be certain that it will still hold all those cards in 25 or 50 years' time.

Israel cannot have a permanent peace and the settlements, too. It is making a bad trade.

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