September 16, 2010 - 12:00am

George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, were in Sharm El Sheikh to mediate between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators.

Unfortunately, and although talks are set to continue in Jerusalem, judging from the public statements made after the meetings, US mediation is spectacularly failing.

Settlements, Mitchell told reporters, are a "politically sensitive issue" in Israel, so he urged Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO leader, to "take steps" to "facilitate the process".

The problem with this line of argument is that while it is correct that settlements are a "politically sensitive" issue in Jerusalem, they are so much more. By their very existence, they are at the very core of obstacles to reaching a two-state solution. The more settlements there are the less land there is for a Palestinian state.

This is a very simple equation, so simple, in fact, that one would have thought that even in Washington that would be realised. But, sadly, Washington is still playing an Israeli tune. That tune has it that progress depends on Israeli political willingness and nothing else.

This is the wrong approach. For decades, Israel has, largely unencumbered, been allowed to build settlements, illegal under international law, in occupied territories, precisely in order to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian entity. This has been a successful enterprise, and the only way a two-state solution can be reached is if this enterprise is stopped and reversed.

There are no ifs and buts about it.

It is in Washington’s power to ensure a settlement freeze, whatever the political reality in Israel. That political reality will, and can, accommodate Washington’s wishes, because on this issue, Washington will find that Israelis themselves are divided. A strong US position against settlements will weigh decisively. Such a position is desperately needed.

Until the US shows its hand properly, the two-state solution is moribund. Continuing negotiations with settlement construction will only serve to undermine the current Palestinian leadership.


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