Ethan Bronner
The New York Times
November 26, 2009 - 1:00am

In recent years, the international community has made one central demand of Israel and one of the Palestinians to create conditions for a two-state solution: Israel must stop building settlements on land the Palestinians want for their state, and the Palestinians must dismantle terrorist networks and end violent attacks on Israelis.

This week, a casual observer could have concluded that each had carried out its duty and that peace talks would move forward. Israel announced a 10-month settlement freeze on Wednesday; as to the Palestinians, violent attacks against Israelis have essentially ended. As Palestinian officials like to point out, trained Palestinian security forces have been keeping order in West Bank cities for more than a year.

But the casual observer would probably be mistaken. There are unlikely to be peace talks soon. In fact, tensions seem set to rise, partly because the claims of each side amount to half-truths, as the other is the first to note.

The 10-month settlement freeze excludes more than 2,500 housing units being built or recently authorized. The moratorium allows a limited number of schools, synagogues and community centers, the kind of “natural growth” banned by the dormant 2003 “road map” for peace, agreed to by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

In other words, although this represents a painful political concession by the Israeli government and is causing it internal trouble, there will never be a moment in the coming months when construction will stop in West Bank settlements.

And Israeli building in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their capital, will be unaffected.

As for the Palestinians’ claim to have successfully ended violence, the Israeli military begs to differ. Yes, its officers say, the Palestinian forces are better trained than in the past, and yes, they have worked seriously in their new roles. But without nightly Israeli raids into Palestinian cities, the violence would never have stopped.

“Last night we carried out between 15 and 20 actions,” a top Israeli commander said of the West Bank raids, in a recent interview under military rules of anonymity. “That was a fairly typical night. It’s like throwing a blanket on a fire. If we stop for a minute, we will go backwards very quickly. We call it cutting the grass.”

And, Israeli officials note, even if the Palestinian Authority were to receive full credit for the sharp reduction in West Bank-based violence, there is still Gaza. It is ruled by the Islamists of Hamas who remain dedicated to Israel’s destruction. Since Palestinian Authority officials dare not even set foot there, it is hard to credit their claim to have dismantled terrorist networks.

But each side in this dispute has stopped listening to the complaints and the accusations of the other. Many Israelis now firmly believe that the Palestinians are not serious about two states; the Palestinians feel the same way about the Israelis. As a result, each is appealing to a foreign audience in hopes of bringing pressure on the other.

Israeli officials made it clear that the settlement halt was focused mostly on one audience: the Obama administration, with which relations have been rocky. The construction pause, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael B. Oren, said afterward, was “a gesture, first of all, to the president of the United States.”

“I can’t stress that enough,” he said.

The Americans made approving noises about the halt but seemed to suggest that more needed to be done to restart peace talks.

Palestinian leaders have spent much of their energy appealing to foreign powers about Israel’s actions. There was talk of a resolution in the United Nations Security Council declaring a Palestinian state until several Western leaders made it clear that this was unlikely to succeed. The idea has not died. The Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, prefers to focus instead on institution building toward a state. But few seem to be listening to him.

The Israeli settlement pause is part of a complex picture. Israel is currently negotiating indirectly with Hamas for the release of a seized soldier and is also trying to improve its international image after harsh criticism of its conduct in Gaza last January.

To arrange the return of the soldier, Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit, Israel is preparing to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. The keen fear among Israeli and American intelligence officials is that both the prisoner exchange and the critique of Israel’s Gaza conduct will increase the power of Hamas, thereby reducing the standing of the Palestinian Authority, run by President Mahmoud Abbas, and decreasing the chances for peace talks.

So gestures to benefit Mr. Abbas are being urged on the Israeli government by its own security agencies and the Americans. That made the settlement pause, rejected in the spring, acceptable even to some on the Israeli right. More efforts are also under way to improve life in the West Bank. American suggestions have included handing over more land to Palestinian control and increasing the responsibility of Palestinian forces.

But Israel has so far resisted such suggestions. The Israeli commander said that if Israel were to hand over more responsibility to the Palestinians, it would lose the extensive intelligence network it has so painstakingly built up in the West Bank in recent years.

As another top commander put it, “If we want to prevent rockets from being shot from the West Bank, keeping our troops on the ground is probably necessary.”

But a national outpouring for Sergeant Shalit has meant that a deal is brewing that could free perhaps 1,000 Palestinian fighters, some of them planners of suicide bombings. In the Israeli military’s words, that would be a lot of new grass to cut. So there is a growing call in Israel to make this the last such lopsided deal for a captured soldier.

As Ari Shavit, a columnist, commented in the newspaper Haaretz on Thursday, the Shalit deal “erodes Israel’s deterrence” and “will weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, flood the territories with skilled terrorists and lead to chaos.”

Others on both sides of the political spectrum are voicing similar concerns, suggesting that if the deal goes through, Israel will be very wary of seeming weak. Settlers and their supporters are already vowing a battle over the construction halt and the proposal to free the fighters. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority is seeking to associate itself with the prisoners expected to be released. In other words, if this exchange occurs, the likelihood of either side appearing conciliatory or of peace talks restarting soon seems low.


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