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Bush and the Settlements

The Bush administration has shown what can most charitably be described as exquisitely bad timing in its reported policy reversal on settlement construction. Signaling approval, even tacit, of new home building in the settlements, as reported last weekend in The New York Times and confirmed by our Ori Nir this week, will not make Israel any stronger or safer. It only reinforces a bad habit that most Israelis want desperately to break.

Israel has spent more than three decades building homes for its citizens in the territories it captured from Jordan, Egypt and Syria in 1967. Officially, successive Israeli governments have declared the territories to be a bargaining chip in future negotiations. In practice, Israelis have sought, for a combination of religious, historical and security concerns, to narrow the territory that remains open for negotiation.

Washington has opposed the settlements throughout that period, along with every other nation on earth, relying on the Geneva Conventions on rules of war, which constrain the behavior of armies in combat and in postwar occupation. But Israel has rejected the treaty as inapplicable to the territories, and Washington, while disagreeing, has looked the other way. Successive administrations have tut-tutted about “obstacles to peace,” but every president has guaranteed Israel the running room to do what it felt it must.

Today, 37 years and 200,000 settlers later, the majority of Israelis have come to see the territories as a headache, not a safety belt. The Palestinians have not become more resigned to Israeli presence over time, but less so. Israelis have not been made any safer by the expansive buffer zone they thought they were acquiring; on the contrary, absorbing the territories has simply brought a vast, hostile and ungovernable population under Israel’s jurisdiction.

The headache is now turning into a cancer. Four years of unremitting Palestinian violence have taught Israelis that they need to separate themselves from their neighbors as soon as possible, for the sake of Israel’s survival as a democratic Jewish state. Mounting international support for the Palestinians, justified or not, is threatening to turn Israel into a pariah state. But with 200,000 Israeli civilians scattered throughout the territories, many of them implacably opposed to any withdrawal, the task of separation is proving to be a political and logistical nightmare.

Affairs have been brought to a head by the International Court of Justice’s recent ruling, which declared that Israel’s West Bank security fence — and virtually everything else Israel has built in the West Bank — violates international law. The ruling carries a very real threat of disastrous international sanctions, as Israel’s attorney general warned last week. Already Israel has had to ground its tanks and jets for brief periods in the past year because spare parts were cut off. That was just a taste of what may lie ahead. Israelis are approaching a precipice, and they know it.

In the face of the crisis, responsible Israelis at every level of decision-making are reaching the same inevitable conclusion: Israel must get out of the territories it has occupied since 1967. The attorney general is calling for the government to recognize the applicability in the territories of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the 1949 treaty on which the world court relied to declare the fence and the settlements illegal. Israel’s own supreme court has given the government 30 days to explain how it will respond to the world court’s ruling. Israel’s national security council has recommended that the security fence now under construction be built as close as possible to the 1967 border, creating a clear, defensible demarcation between Israel and its neighbors. Israel’s army and police are hard at work on plans for evacuating settlers, by force if necessary, from the settlements now targeted for dismantling.

This is the thicket that the Bush administration has entered with its coy talk of re-examining the meaning of settlement expansion. While Israelis search desperately for a way to disentangle themselves from their neighbors, Washington is offering to assist in deepening the quagmire.

Administration officials say their intention is merely to help Prime Minister Sharon shore up his domestic support so that he can pursue his Gaza disengagement plan. But Sharon doesn’t need that kind of help. Right how he needs to convince his fellow Israelis that there’s only one way out of the mess they’re in. The Bush administration should be helping him do that.

President Bush has earned a great deal of gratitude from Israel’s friends in this country because of his tough-minded stance against terrorism. There’s nothing more he needs to prove on that score. He could firm up his own place in history by helping Israel to do what it needs to do.

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