JERUSALEM (Aug. 22)
With apparent approval from the United States, Israel is cementing its hold on some settlement blocs in the West Bank. A weekend report in The New York Times that the Bush administration will not contest some new construction within the existing settlement boundaries, in an apparent reversal of the U.S.-led peace “road map,” met with little surprise in Israel.
Ariel Sharon’s government had run ads for bids on West Bank building contracts for weeks, drawing only mild criticism from U.S. officials.
That the campaign came as the Israeli prime minister struggled to win over his Likud Party on his plan to “disengage” from the Palestinians is seen as no coincidence.
“Sharon needs to convince Israeli hawks that there is a trade-off for quitting the Gaza Strip,” a senior Prime Minister’s Office source said Sunday, referring to the biggest withdrawal slated for 2005 under the disengagement plan. “That means making it clear that We! st Bank enclaves will grow.”
According to Ha’aretz, the United States decided to step in on Sharon’s behalf after the Likud Central Committee voted against his bid to bring the opposition Labor Party into a “national unity” government and thus shore up his plan.
Israel has long argued that it should be allowed to develop settlements in order to cope with their “natural growth,” or children born to residents.
Sharon “knew the American administration would find it difficult to denounce him while he was struggling against the right and Likud rebels. Certainly not when President George Bush himself is fighting for another term,” wrote Ha’aretz analyst Aluf Benn, alluding to crucial Jewish votes in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.
Bush signaled his support for Israel’s retaining West Bank settlement blocs in April, when he said after a historic White House meeting with Sharon that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations ! will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”
But the Arab world still clings to the idea that the “road map” guarantees the Palestinians full statehood in all of the West Bank and Gaza, despite their failure to crack down on terrorist groups as required by the plan.
The United States adopting such a position “can only damage the peace process, if its exists, and damage the whole situation and make it more difficult,” the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, said Sunday in Cairo.
For his part, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority said he would be surprised if the United States had given Israel assurance on the settlements.
“I do not believe that America says now that settlements can be expanded,” Ahmed Qurei said. “This thwarts and destroys the peace process.”
Washington’s support is not unquestioning. Though the Times article quoted a senior Bush administration official as saying “there is some flexibility” concerning limited growth of settlements, the Bush administration is unl! ikely to accept wholesale relocation of the 8,000 evacuated Gaza settlers to the West Bank as falling under this rubric.
On Sunday, the Israeli government launched an Administration for Assistance to Gaza Strip Residents, designed to coordinate compensation for the settlers.
Those who leave willingly could receive as much as $300,000 per family.
With such payments in the works, many Israelis may want the settlers to end up in the internationally recognized boundaries of the Jewish state.