Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
April 2, 2008 - 6:37pm

It is hard to tell if US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is being deliberately innocent and juvenile, or, as the highest American foreign policy official, she is genetically incapable of being honest when it comes to Palestinian-Israeli issues. There is now only one real test of progress, or criterion of political seriousness, in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the short term: Can the United States make Israel stop expanding its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories? If not, talk of peace is a cruel hoax that will only raise and then dash expectations, leading to unknown consequences when the backlash occurs.

Continued Israeli settlement in occupied Palestinian land is the single most destructive and dangerous reflection of the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It captures in a single dynamic the predatory nature of Zionist aims, the conquest and settlement of Arab land by Israelis, and the continued dispersal and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. If peace-making is to have any chance of success, Israeli colonization of Arab lands must be halted and then largely reversed under final-status agreements.

The Palestinians for their part have to reciprocate, of course, with a move of equal magnitude. But the Palestinians, especially President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement who still head the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, cannot make any meaningful move without Israeli permission. They cannot expand, equip or train their police force; they cannot import or export anything; they cannot drill water wells or build roads; they cannot go shopping in Paris; they cannot even hold a meeting of their full Parliament without explicit permission from the Israelis.

The Palestinian-Israeli "peace process" in its current form has lost all seriousness due to the severe imbalance in power between the two sides. Into this difficult situation steps the American government, vowing admirably, as it did at Annapolis four months ago, to exert vigorous efforts to achieve peace by the end of this year. Two things have been consistent since then, however: senior American officials travel to Israel regularly to push the peace process forward, and with every such visit the Israeli government announces new settlement expansion plans.

The latest in this recurring cycle of predictable events happened in the past three days, when Rice was in Israel and the Israeli government announced plans to build 600 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Pisgat Zeev. Soon after that announcement, the Shas Party Monday said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had promised he would revive frozen plans to build 800 homes in a settlement in Beitar Illit.

The Israeli Peace Now movement monitors settlement activity more diligently than the US government does, as it does Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the 2003 "road map" requirements. It reported this week that Israel has approved the construction of almost 1,700 homes in occupied Palestinian territory since the Annapolis gathering.

Rice said in Amman Monday that, "Settlement activity should stop, and expansion should stop; it is not consistent with road map obligations ... My strong view is that the best thing we can do is focus on getting this agreement," she said, referring to Abbas-Olmert negotiations to achieve a broad framework for peace by the end of this year. She argued that "it's all moving in the right direction."

Well, yes, like the man who was walking down the street unaware of the refrigerator that was about to land on him from the skyscraper. It is difficult to understand why an otherwise sensible and learned American secretary of state can live in a fantasy world when it comes to understanding the real significance of Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land. Soft rhetorical criticism of the settlements simply does no good to anyone.

The continued expansion of Israeli settlements is a dagger simultaneously pointed at the hearts of Palestinian negotiators and American mediators. One reason why so many Palestinians have lost hope in a negotiated peace, and have instead supported Hamas and others who fight Israel militarily, is the continued settlement activity by Israel and the apparent acquiescence by the US and the rest of the world.

Fatah and Abbas have pleaded with the US and Israel for years, to no avail. They point out the illegality of the settlements under the Geneva Convention rules and UN Security Council resolutions, to no avail. No wonder they keep pleading, and Rice believes things are moving in the right direction. They do not want to pause for a moment, look up, see the reality of their world, and catch sight of the refrigerators that are about to fall on them and ruin their efforts.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017