Is This the Road to Israeli-Palestinian Peace?

Update: At nightfall, Israel time, Hamas terrorists killed four Israelis on a highway near Hebron in the West Bank. The attack was clearly aimed at discrediting the Palestinian Authority's efforts to stop terror, and at thwarting the resumption of peace talks. Read more here.

"Watch out for the yahud," for the Jews, said the young Palestinian man outside Ramallah whom we asked for directions. My colleague asked what he meant; we certainly weren't going to run into crowds of Israeli Jews, civilians, or soldiers if we took the wrong turn in Ramallah. Besides, our accents made it obvious that we were Jews ourselves.

Yahud, said the man working on the truck, was now the slang for the Palestinian police -- the ubiquitous forces that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have deployed to impose order in Palestinian cities and prevent terror attacks against Israelis. Israeli regulations from the beginning of the Second Intifada bar Israelis from the main Palestinian cities. If we strayed into town, we risked "protective arrest" by the Palestinian police.

To this incident let me add another: I recently phoned an Israeli architect who works with settlements. He really didn't have time to fit in an interview, he said; he was very busy, because "the freeze is about to end." He was referring to the loose moratorium on settlement construction that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted last fall under U.S. pressure, due to expire Sept. 26.

Slice those two incidents thinly, place them under a political microscope, and the diagnosis is clear: The direct negotiations between Israel and Abbas' Palestinian Authority, due to resume Thursday in Washington, are in dire condition at the moment of their rebirth.

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has sought to revive direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Thursday's ceremonial reopening of the talks is the culmination of that effort. Afterward, negotiations are to move to Middle East locations. The administration is confidently talking of reaching agreement on a two-state solution within a year. It's very hard to share that optimism. Without an Israeli commitment to renew the settlement freeze, there is a fatal imbalance built into the diplomatic process.

On one hand, the Palestinian Authority is keeping its obligation under the 2003 road map "to end armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere." Not only have Abbas and Fayyad declared a policy of negotiations instead of violence to achieve independence, the American-trained PA security forces are in fact enforcing a ceasefire. The results are tangible and obvious.

My colleague and I were on the outskirts of Ramallah because it was safe to be there, even in a 4x4 pickup that might as well have "Israeli" written on it in neon letters. Despite the Israeli military order against entering Palestinian cities, intrepid Israeli doves trade stories about going out for dinner in Ramallah. The terrifying TV footage we all saw of two Israeli soldiers being lynched in central Ramallah back in October 2000 has been stored in the lockbox where people put trauma so they can get on with life.

At the start of the Second Intifada, when drive-by shootings on West Bank roads were routine events, the Israeli government cut the fare by half on bus lines to settlements, to encourage settlers to travel in armored buses. The subsidized fare is still in place -- settlement subsidies have a way of becoming permanent -- but normal city buses ply some of the lines. Inside Jerusalem, the guards who used to stand nervously at café entrances, checking bags and looking for suicide bombers, have also vanished into memory.

Yet despite the PA's fulfillment of its security obligations, Palestinians seem no closer to independence. Both as an Israeli and as an advocate of nonviolent resolution of conflicts, I'm pleased that Abbas and Fayyad have chosen to pursue their goals peacefully. So far, however, an objective observer must acknowledge that the paltry political payoff is eroding their legitimacy as leaders among their constituents. They look like subcontractors maintaining Israeli security. Thus, young men in Ramallah label PA police yahud.

On the other hand, the most important requirement that the road map placed upon Israel has not been met. The growth of West Bank settlements hasn't stopped. The moratorium of recent months has barely brought a slowdown in construction, since it exempted 3,000 homes that had already been built when it came into force. Settler leaders and supportive officials are ready to make up for any lost time the moment the supposed moratorium ends.

Let's be morally and politically precise here: Building settlements and blowing people up are not equivalent offenses. Settlements can be taken down or given up; the dead will not return to life. Violence against Palestinians has often been a consequence of settlement activity, but bloodshed is not written in the plans.

Nonetheless, from 1967 till today settlements have been part of a strategy of thwarting Palestinian political aspirations. A series of master plans drawn up by government officials and settlement leaders since the right-wing Likud took power in 1977 are more specific in their goals: To create strips of settlement-controlled land that run the length and breadth of the West Bank, restricting the Palestinians to shrinking enclaves. If construction resumes at full speed on Sept. 27, it will conform to this strategy.

This means that the renewed peace talks will be conducted under conditions of a one-sided ceasefire. By acceding to American pressure and joining such talks, Abbas has further reduced his own legitimacy. In turn, it becomes even more difficult for him to make the compromises that he -- like Netanyahu -- will inevitably have to make in order to reach a final-status agreement.

For the Obama team, there is one way to make the talks viable. It must insist that Netanyahu commit himself to an open-ended, comprehensive halt to settlement construction. That would create a bilateral ceasefire.

The alternatives wafting through Jerusalem and Washington have less value than snake oil. A proposal being pushed by moderate Likud Cabinet member Dan Meridor would maintain the freeze on building in isolated settlements while allowing construction in the settlement blocs "expected to remain under Israeli control" to use the standard, deceptive political formula. The formula ignores the fact that there is no agreement between Israel and Palestinians on which blocs will remain in Israeli hands. Indeed, there is no consensus within Israel on which settlements belong to these blocs. Does Ariel, deep in the West Bank, belong on the list merely because it's a large town? That's a subject for the Israeli domestic debate that peace talks should ignite -- and that Meridor would prefer to avoid. And as Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, has explained, the Israeli government has proved incapable of defining the boundaries of the blocs.

Two other murmured ideas, mirror images of each other, are also duds. One is for Netanyahu to declare a freeze without enforcing it strictly. The Israeli public would be fooled. Palestinians, who can see the construction from their windows, will not be deceived. The other idea is for Netanyahu to impose a de facto halt on building, without officially declaring it. This will not reduce any of the political pressure on Netanyahu from settlers or their supporters within his coalition, but enforcing the freeze would be more difficult.

And here we reach the crux: The settlers, small in number but politically mobilized, control Netanyahu's parliamentary coalition. Netanyahu could build a more moderate coalition, but he prefers to tell Washington that he's politically hamstrung. For Obama, it seems, it's politically easier to lean on Abbas than on Netanyahu. Yet the talks, as constituted, will lead nowhere. If Obama wants more than a festive opening to negotiations, if he actually wants to reach peace, he will have to remove the construction equipment that is blocking the road.

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