ELSAH, ILL. — In his understandable determination to assist a beleaguered Israel, President Bush is leaning hard on Palestinians to curb political violence. The inability or unwillingness of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to curb acts of terrorism against Israel conveys the impression that he alone is the obstacle to peace in the Middle East.
But to be successful, President Bush also needs to address the other sine qua non to peace and the main issue that produces such violence in the first place: the relentless expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Since it first occupied the territories in 1967, Israel has encouraged its citizens to build outposts of Israeli sovereignty on land seized from Palestinian Arabs. Once thought to be bargaining chips in an eventual deal for peace with Israel's Arab neighbors, the settlements have become the outposts of a "greater Israel" envisioned by a politically influential Israeli minority.
Some 400,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank, Gaza, and parts of Arab East Jerusalem annexed by Israel. Counting land on which the Israeli Defense Forces maintain security control, Israel now has authority over 60 percent of the West Bank and 20 percent of Gaza. But like the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel traded for peace with Egypt more than two decades ago, the settlements are a two-edged sword. Viewed as a security buffer by many Israelis, they are a casus belli for Palestinians, whose anger and helplessness in the face of systematic Israeli land seizures have spilled over into the low-level warfare of terrorism against Israeli soldiers and citizens.
Historically, the United States has viewed Israeli settlements as a major barrier to peace. The Clinton administration downgraded the assessment, designating settlements as a mere "complicating factor." Focused on his war against Osama bin Laden and now the larger targets of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, President Bush largely has ignored continued Israeli settlement activity. In the process, he has missed an essential point, namely, that without a reversal of settlement activity, the war against terrorism can never be won.
Few issues fuel more anger against the US and Israel. Few generate more sympathy for the likes of Mr. bin Laden, and not among Palestinians alone. Nothing breeds greater cynicism than the wide gulf that exists between the United States' historic affinity for the principle of self-determination and its willingness to turn a blind eye to Israel's systematic expropriation of Arab lands. Nothing undermines more thoroughly the credibility of the administration's protestations of interest in an eventual Palestinian state than its tepid protests over the continuing seizure of the very land that would constitute such a state.
Peace between Israelis and Palestinians must come at a great price to both. In addition to halting acts of violence against Israel, Palestinians will need to relinquish the "right of return" - their long-standing claim to property lost within Israel when Palestinian Arabs fled or were driven from their homes after the Jewish state was created in 1948.
For its part, Israel will have to abandon all or most of its settlements on Palestinian land. Pressure to do so will have to come from the US, which may need to use its annual $3 billion-plus aid allotment to Israel as leverage. Gridlocked by coalition politics that give the settler minority disproportionate power in government councils, Israel is unable to do so on its own. Israel's reluctance is exacerbated by the failure of the country's current leadership to grasp the central fact of a pending Arab majority in geographical Palestine that helped nudge Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the bargaining table a decade ago.
As for the US, it will need the kind of courageous leadership demonstrated by George Bush Sr., who, at great political risk, tied US loan guarantees to Israel to a cessation of settlement activity. Without such leadership, the younger Bush risks sharing equally with Israel the blame for the continuation of violence against the Jewish state and for nourishing the atmosphere that has energized the radical groups in the region against which he declared verbal war in his recent State of the Union address.
Holding Israel as well as Palestinians to account would be the ultimate act of self-interest for the US, enabling the president to garner more international support for his war on terrorism and removing a provocation that galvanizes hatred for the US abroad and prevents Israel from enjoying the stability, peace, and security that it needs and deserves.
Taking a strong stand on the issue of settlements will require the courage on Washington's part that real friendship with Israel - not politically convenient friendship - requires.
George Moffett, a former Middle East correspondent for the Monitor, is president of Principia College.