JERUSALEM — After last week's drama at the Red Sea summit meetings, those who still have the patience even to think about the problems of Israelis and Palestinians may well be wondering: Is peace about to break out?
The answer, I'm afraid, is probably not. This is not to say that important things didn't happen in the weeks leading up to Sharm el Sheikh and Aqaba, and at the meetings themselves. The Palestinians have a leader in Mahmoud Abbas, who clearly seems to recognize that nearly three years of terror have only hurt their cause. And he appears sincere in his attempt to bring about an end to an intifada of violence. Ariel Sharon, too, has come a great distance since his January reelection. One of Israel's most indefatigable warriors has begun using terms never before heard from him, speaking of the need to end the "occupation," to "divide" the land of Israel, and to ensure that the emerging Palestinian state has "territorial contiguity."
It is likely that none of this would have happened had not President Bush taken the leap and become personally involved in trying to facilitate a settlement. That, too, was a change of tack for which he deserves considerable credit.
Why, then, the pessimism? I'll put aside, for the moment, the severe doubts any Israeli must have about the Palestinian prime minister's ability to impose a cease-fire on organizations like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, or even whether Abu Mazen, as Mr. Abbas is known, has the support of a majority of his people. I will assume, too, that Mr. Bush is in this to the bitter end, and will keep the pressure up on both sides.
I'll even grant that Mr. Sharon appears to be serious in his declarations. Unfortunately, though, the reality he helped create in the West Bank and Gaza during the past 3-1/2 decades is almost sure to foil the prime minister in his mission to disentangle Israel from the Palestinians.
In his statement at the Aqaba meeting, Sharon promised the immediate dismantlement of "illegal" outposts. The distinction between "legal" and "illegal" settlements is an Israeli one, as most international jurists believe that all Israeli settlement activity in the territories violates the Fourth Geneva Convention. (Every US administration, too, since 1967, has opposed settlement activity, in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.) When the prime minister speaks of illegal outposts, he means communities, in most cases tiny, improvised ones, established without proper administrative approval.
At the end of May, I toured several of the illegal settlements, in the southern part of the occupied West Bank. My guide was Dror Etkes, who tracks the growth and spread of Jewish communities in the territories for the Peace Now movement.
Few Israelis have spent time in the West Bank, unless it has been during Army service. They know little firsthand about conditions under which Palestinians live (since the intifada began, they're not even permitted in the areas under Palestinian control), and not much more about the settlement enterprise, which has been undertaken with stealth.
At Givat Ma'on, we found a tiny outpost, twice evacuated by government order, that had in recent weeks reestablished itself in the form of one decommissioned bus, serving as a home for a family using the area to farm goats. Nearby, at Asael, we came upon seven mobile homes and a water tower, served by a newly paved access road and guarded by a soldier. Similarly, at the New Eshtamoa outpost, situated near the site of an "illegal" of the same name that was evacuated by mutual agreement several months ago, we found mobile homes, an army guard, and several friendly residents, who explained that they had little concern that their presence was threatened by Sharon's declared intention to implement the Bush road map.
They may have spoken too soon. But ultimately, their confidence is probably wellplaced. The significance of the outposts, which Etkes numbers at just more than 100, lies less in the 1,000 or so settlers they house than in their placement along an axis intended to create a continuity of Jewish control over the territory. (During Sharon's 2-1/2 years in office, 62 of these settlements have been built. By Sunday, reports were that the army was trying to convince the residents of a dozen of them to voluntarily evacuate, leaving plans for the remainder unclear.)
"The tactic of the outposts," says Mr. Etkes, "is based on an understanding that since there's no solution to the demographic problem, the answer is to capture land."
The highly publicized cat-and-mouse game, in which every few months the Israeli army evicts squatters from the outposts, is a smokescreen, not only because - as I learned on my trip - the squatters often return, but principally because it deflects attention from the truth: Since the 1993 signing of the Oslo agreement, in which Israel promised not to change the status quo in the territories, the Jewish population in the West Bank has doubled from 110,000 to 220,000. (Palestinians number nearly 2 million, with another 1.2 million living in Gaza.) It is no less significant that while the built-up sections of the settlements comprise only 3.5 percent of the land mass of the West Bank, Israel controls more than 40 percent of the land.
Furthermore, if published reports of the Sharon government's plan for a separation wall to demarcate Israeli-controlled areas from Palestinian lands are correct, the Palestinians will be left with less than half of the West Bank to build their state on. They are demanding 100 percent.
Israel, my country, has ample reason to doubt the ultimate intentions of the Palestinians, as well as their ability to put aside violence. But even if the Palestinians have largely concluded that their homeland must be in their own state, to be established on the lands that came under Israeli control in June 1967, the Israeli public has yet to grapple seriously with either the extent or full significance of the settlement enterprise in those lands. And that makes the prospects for a credible agreement as remote as ever.
• David B. Green is a senior editor at The Jerusalem Report.