The Settlements Issue

It's still far from clear how the Middle East peace process will fare in the new climate created by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On the positive side, Mr. Netanyahu has met with the leaders of Jordan and Egypt, and he hasn't ruled out resumption of the partnership with Yasser Arafat that was a hallmark of his predecessors' peacemaking. But he has made such a resumption far more difficult by lifting the four-year-old freeze on new building in the Jewish settlements that dot the West Bank. That move was foretold by the report, a few days earlier, that Netanyahu's minister for infrastructure, Ariel Sharon, had approved new roads for the West Bank and new bridges into the Golan Heights.

Mr. Arafat has blasted Netanyahu's lifting of the building ban as a flagrant violation of the peace accords. His reaction, including plans to resist settlement expansion, is intended to warn Israel that it may be close to the brink of a renewed uprising. It's also intended to bolster Arafat's standing with his own people, who have been grumbling about his harsh tactics in controlling Islamic militants, human right activists, and other critics of the Palestinian Authority.

There are hints that Netanyahu may be about to offer a breakthrough on the Palestinian "track" of the peace process. Progress on turning the West Bank city of Hebron over to the Palestinian administration would, for instance, be a welcome step forward. But any turn in the process is clouded by the threat of renewed settlement activity and its hint of annexation.

Not that this activity really ceased during the Rabin-Peres years. During the two years ending this June, population growth in the settlements continued apace, increasing by nearly 50 percent to around 150,000. It's worth noting, too, that the Oslo peace process itself does not necessarily require or even envision the removal of the settlements. Rather, it allows for their protection, aiming, perhaps, toward some form of stable coexistence between settlers and self-governing Palestinians.

What Netanyahu's peace-minded predecessors did, however, was remove official approval from the zealots' desire to create "new facts" on the ground. That zealotry is now fully represented in the Israeli Cabinet. It has to be curbed if the peace process is to progress further. Much of that curbing should come from the United States, which has long officially held that settlement-building is an obstacle to peace. That stand should be firmly restated. Instead, it has grown increasingly wobbly, with tacit US acceptance of what Israeli officials have called "natural growth" of the settlements. But the central responsibility is Netanyahu's. He has to keep the zealots within bounds.

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