PALESTINIAN violence and the growth of Israeli settlements -- these are the major threats to the current Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. But the United States government, the principal sponsor of the talks, responds to them in very different ways.
When Palestinian bombers struck fatally on April 9, the president and secretary of state rushed to condemn the violence in the strongest possible language. But just weeks before, when Israel's government revealed plans to build a boggling 30,000 new settler homes in the West Bank over the next four years (in addition to 13,000 already approved for East Jerusalem) there was only a deafening hush in Washington. Comment was left to low-level State Department briefers who made a tasteless play for reporters' laughs on the topic.
So much for US respect for the Fourth Geneva Convention! This was one of four conventions adopted in 1949 by governments revolted at the Nazis' schemes to redraw the face of Europe. Signatories undertook to protect populations of territories under military occupation from, among other things, any attempt by the occupying power to implant its own citizens into those areas.
The United States government, like all other major governments except Israel's, considers that the Geneva Conventions apply in the West Bank and Gaza. But over the years, it has whittled down its opposition to Israeli settlements there considerably. For the first 15 years of the occupation, the US government agreed with the global consensus that the settlements were ''illegal.'' Nowadays, when American officials speak about the settlements at all, which they are notably reluctant to do, they describe them only as ''a complicating factor,'' or ''a problem.''
United States officials have meanwhile signaled a condoning attitude toward significant parts of Israel's settlement plans. In 1993, an assistant secretary of state told Congress that the US would give Israel ''some allowance'' for ''natural growth'' in the settlements. US officials pay little attention to the continuing drive to increase the number of Jews-only housing units in East Jerusalem. And they accept Israeli explanations that the settlement housing being built or planned for the rest of the West Bank is the work of ''the private sector'' with little more than a wink of connivance -- though they know full well that such housing could never be built without massive government help in seizing the land, subsidizing its sale, and providing security and all basic infrastructure.
Inside Israel, there is a vocal debate between those who seek ''separation'' from the Palestinians and those who seek to keep a unified ''Greater Land of Israel,'' including most of the West Bank. But proponents of both points of view generally miss an important truth. Any stable peace between two peoples so closely twined has to involve elements of both separation and integration, in whatever balance. But it cannot be built at all without a strong foundation of justice, reciprocity, and mutual respect between members of the two groups.
If the fragile negotiation between these two peoples falls apart -- which now looks like a real and increasing possibility -- then the broader Middle East peace, and America's web of relations throughout the region, will be severely damaged.
The Clinton administration can still change course, and inject some fair-minded and pro-active leadership into its Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy.
One vital first step: US opposition to Israeli settlement-building that is as vocal and unyielding as its opposition to Palestinian terrorism.