WASHINGTON — Despite the road map’s requirement of Israeli steps toward a settlement construction freeze, Israel and the United States have not held any detailed discussions of the steps that would be involved in such a move, senior Israeli diplomatic sources said. American administration sources confirmed the Israeli account.
The text of the “road map” appears to dictate that Palestinian security measures and steps toward a settlement freeze should come simultaneously. Israel had pressed for the two steps to be sequential rather than concurrent, but was publicly rebuffed last month.
However, according to the Israeli diplomatic sources, Washington and Jerusalem have quietly agreed that a freeze on settlement activity will come only toward the end of the first phase of the road map. It will thus come not as an immediate response to Palestinian anti-terrorism measures, but after a prolonged period of calm and after most first-phase requirements from the Palestinians have been fulfilled.
“There is really no point in discussing a settlement freeze in any detail at the moment, because it is still premature,” said a senior Israeli diplomat. First, he said, Israel and the United States want to see real security measures taken by Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen.
Moreover, the diplomat said, even when such measures are taken, Israel will not reciprocate with a gradual freeze of settlement activity, as Palestinians have expected. Rather, it will offer an easing of military restrictions on the West Bank and Gaza. Measures under consideration include lifting the closure on Palestinian towns and villages, granting more licenses for Palestinians to work in Israel and scaling down the assassinations of suspected Palestinian terrorists.
One idea that Israel has raised, the sources said, was a “rolling approach,” allowing it to gauge Abu Mazen’s ability to fight terrorism. Under this plan, the new Palestinian prime minister and his security aides would start by pacifying one area in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel, in turn, would scale back its military presence in that area in order to normalize life locally. Such would be the case in each part of the territories that the Palestinian Authority succeeds in pacifying.
Israel does intend, however, to dismantle “illegal” settlement outposts, some 72 small, provisional settlements built without government approval since March 2001. Israel has agreed to carry this out early in the road map implementation process, regardless of extended Palestinian performance on security, the sources said. This would fulfill the road map’s requirement that settlement outposts be dismantled “immediately.”
The map is less specific on the timing — within the first phase of the plan — of a broader freeze on settlement activity. It does say specifically that the freeze should include a halt to the “natural growth of settlements.” President Bush has said on several occasions that the “settlement activity must end” as progress is made toward peace, implying that this is not expected as an immediate step.
Israel is taking this as a go-ahead to put the construction freeze off for now, reportedly with the administration’s acquiescence. “Freezing settlements is something that will come at a much later stage,” an Israeli diplomat said. In his words, a settlement freeze should be a “closure” or “endgame” of the road-map’s first phase, “and the Americans accept that.”
The American-Israeli interpretation of the road map’s timing is receiving a chilly response from European and Arab diplomats whose countries have been closely involved in shaping the plan. “This is controversial, and it’s not the way we understand it,” said an Arab diplomat in Washington. “We were told that a settlement freeze would be a reciprocal step Israel will take gradually in the course of the first phase.”
The European Union is said by diplomats to take a similar approach, expecting that a settlement freeze will be applied as the Palestinians fulfill their first-phase requirements, and not after all these requirements have been fulfilled.
Sources familiar with administration thinking said the delay in mapping out a settlement freeze was due in part to the administration’s assessment that stopping construction in the settlements would involve huge complications, both political and administrative, within Israel. Given the magnitude of the challenge and the likelihood of a confrontation between Washington and Jerusalem, they said, it was not worth entering the process until and unless it became clear that a Palestinian effort against terrorism was forthcoming — something that administration officials also see as a long shot.
“In terms of symmetry and implementation of mutual obligations, the Israelis will respond with respect to their requirements to the degree that the Palestinians respond with respect to theirs,” said Aaron Miller, a former State Department official who helped shape the road map. And, he said, the likelihood of the P.A. achieving a full cessation of violence is low.
Miller, who left the State Department in January to head Seeds for Peace, an Israeli-Arab youth program, told the Forward that Israel and the United States have never discussed the mechanics of a settlement freeze. He said Washington had never had “an in-depth, detailed discussion with the Israelis on this issue.
“This issue simply involved so many sensitivities and so many Israeli government ministries — it is simply too difficult to follow and too difficult to define precisely,” Miller said.
A real settlement freeze, he said, will require a series of self-imposed Israeli restrictions on building, zoning, budgeting and planning. Moreover, he said, even if such a self-imposed ban were to ocur, Israel’s government may not be in a legal position to ban private construction under existing contracts.
Miller said that to the best of his knowledge, even the American government does not have a clear definition of what a settlement freeze would mean. “Does a freeze apply to the West Bank and Gaza and the Golan Heights only?” he asked. “Does it apply to the Jerusalem area? What does ‘natural growth’ mean? If someone wants to build a roof or an addition to a house, is he permitted to do this? How does it affect planning and zoning?”
The internal Israeli political complications of freezing settlement activities were underlined last week, when nearly half the Knesset members from Prime Minister Sharon’s Likud Party joined a parliamentary caucus dedicated to defending settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. In addition to the 18 Likud lawmakers, four Shas representatives joined the effort, known as the Yesha Lobby. The lobby is also expected to draw additional lawmakers from the National Religious Party, United Torah Judaism and the National Union Party.
Further complicating Sharon’s declared intention to implement the road map are statements and lobbying efforts against the road map by members of his Cabinet.
Sharon’s tourism minister, Benny Elon, was in Washington this week to lobby members of Congress against the plan, despite strong disapproval from Sharon himself.
Elon, an Orthodox rabbi who heads the far-right National Union faction, was on Capitol Hill for a second week in a row meeting with senators and representatives and sharply criticizing the road map. The trip appeared to infuriate Sharon, who was meeting this week in Jerusalem with a senior administration envoy, William Burns, to discuss the road map’s implementation.
Sharon reportedly told his Cabinet Sunday that he strongly disapproves of its members using official ministerial visits abroad to promote their private political views, particularly when these views do not represent government policy. “It causes tremendous damage to Israel, particularly when these views are presented by a Cabinet minister who ostensibly presents the government’s position,” Sharon was quoted as saying at the Cabinet’s weekly meeting.
But a spokesman for Elon said the minister has no intention of “hiding his views on the road map” if asked by his interlocutors. Elon met mainly with Evangelical Christian leaders, both in Washington and in the Bible Belt, on a tour that was ostensibly meant to advance tourism to Israel but seemed to focus mainly on rallying Christian conservatives to oppose the road map. Elon offered his American interlocutors an “alternative peace plan,” which includes dissolving the P.A., making Jordan a de-facto Palestinian state, formally annexing the West Bank and Gaza to Israel and “completing the exchange of populations that began in 1948.”
Elon is Israel’s most prominent supporter of the policy known as “transfer,” or encouraging Palestinians to move en masse from the West Bank and Gaza.
The Bush administration sent unhappy messages to Jerusalem as Elon embarked on his American tour, and sought clarifications from Sharon that Elon’s lobbying was not sanctioned by the prime minister, said pro-Israel activists in Washington. A spokesman for Elon said “the minister had no discussion with Prime Minister Sharon about his activities in Washington this week.” When asked about Sharon’s charge of impropriety in misrepresenting the government’s position, the spokesman said Elon “was not going to comment on that.”