Till Settlement Freezes Over

The American consulate in Jerusalem once again has a full-time official reporting on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. For the last few years, that task was just a part-time task for a consulate staffer. For those who enjoy poring over diplomatic hints, this one sounds positive: It means more information flowing to the State Department and could even reflect renewed concern in Condoleezza Rice's fiefdom over the forces that block Israeli-Palestinian peace. Then again, a consulate spokeswoman confirms the settlement man is a junior diplomat on his first overseas assignment. He'll have it for just one year before handing it over to another fresh young foreign service officer. If the official's rank suggests the priority given to his e-mails, they won't be the first thing Condi reads in the morning.

Still, there's another, more public sign that settlement is back on the American agenda: The Ha'aretz daily reported last week that under U.S. pressure, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would declare a freeze on settlement construction before the upcoming Annapolis peace parley, aimed at reviving the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process. Since Olmert doesn't want to discuss the core issues -- Jerusalem, refugees, borders -- at the conference, Washington wants him to signal to Palestinians and the Arab world that Israel really intends to give up occupied territory, or so anonymous Israeli government sources told Ha'aretz.

If Olmert comes through, the consulate's settlement staffer will have a stunning career opportunity: making sure that settlement really freezes over. Let me suggest some guidelines for the diplomat in the field and for his superiors in Washington. First: Ask where the freeze actually applies, and from what stage in construction it takes effect.

Look, for instance, at Beitar Illit. I just took a quick trip over to that community, one of several incredibly quickly growing settlements marketed to ultra-Orthodox Jews. Those Israelis have low incomes and many children -- making them an ideal demographic to lure to the West Bank with government-subsidized housing. Beitar Illit covers two hills southwest of Jerusalem. The streets are lined with very new apartment buildings, faced in rough-cut yellow-white stone, all with red-tile roofs, so alike they could have been turned out in a factory for a Monopoly board. Preschoolers and pregnant moms are everywhere.

On the western hill, at the end of the main street, stand the concrete shells of new buildings going up. Some have already been faced in stone. None have roofs yet. From the street, I could see over a hundred apartments under construction. Each will be home to a family with five or eight or more children.

Beitar Illit is close to the Green Line, the border between Israel and the West Bank. It's part of the Etzion area, one of the "major settlement blocs" that Olmert hopes to keep in Israeli hands. According to Hagit Ofran, coordinator of the Peace Now movement's Settlement Watch team, hundreds of housing units are also being built at Ma'aleh Adumim, in a bloc east of Jerusalem. If the freeze doesn't apply to the blocs, it will be worse than meaningless. It will signal that settlements will keep growing, not that Israel is ready to pull back.

Even if Rice demands that the freeze cover the whole West Bank, her man from the consulate should check the end of the road in Beitar Illit. Olmert could claim that he can't stop construction of buildings already going up, in which contractors and homebuyers have property rights. He might make the same claim about planned developments where the government has leased land to developers, even if they haven't started work yet. In fact, even if the prime minister intends to stop such construction, lower-level officials sympathetic to settlers could try to evade his instructions by citing signed contracts.

In that case, the consulate's man should call Tel Aviv human rights lawyer Michael Sfard. Back in 1992, as Sfard reminded me, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered a standstill on settlement in much of the West Bank. The territory was under military rule, and the army issued orders to stop work even at buildings under construction. In some places, completed homes were left locked and sealed. Sfard notes that the Israeli Supreme Court rejected challenges to the freeze, saying that since it dealt with occupied territory, it fell under the government's prerogative to conduct foreign policy. The legal situation has not changed, and a real freeze today would mean leaving Beitar Illit's concrete shells as they are.

Olmert's problem is that if he insists that not one more red tile is placed on a roof, he'll face an explosion of protest from settler activists. For the same reason, the prime minister has avoided evacuating outposts -- the clumps of mobile homes set up by activists on West Bank hills in defiance of Israeli law since the mid-1990s.

But a real freeze would also mean confrontation with settlement radicals and their young supporters on the religious right. To defy an existing ban on moving mobile homes in the West Bank, Ofran reports, settlers have been bringing them in pieces and putting them together on site. At some outposts, permanent homes are being constructed. A freeze would have to apply to such building.

Olmert's real dilemma is that he'd like to move forward on peace negotiations while postponing an internal Israeli showdown with extremists. No one knows how violent that showdown could become. In this respect, the prime minister has a great affinity with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, who would love to make a deal with Israel while avoiding another internal battle with Palestinian hardliners. The reality is that neither can achieve an agreement with the other without being much tougher on the home front.

But back to the freeze: The consulate's man should also pay close attention to whether the Israeli government finally eliminates subsidies to move to settlements. This isn't easy to check, since there's no distinct settlement chapter in the Israeli state budget. Historically, the extra money for settlers is scattered through countless budget lines, virtually preventing public debate within Israel about the price tag of the disastrous settlement project. I recommend a U.S. grant -- perhaps from funds for promoting democracy -- to an Israeli NGO, which could hire a budget expert to spend the months needed to track down the subsidies and publish the figures. But a few incentives are in public view. The Housing Ministry online mortgage wizard (link for those who can read Hebrew) shows that the government is still giving subsidized mortgages to families moving to communities deep in the West Bank.

The real question, though, is not what a junior foreign service officer in Jerusalem reports, but what the secretary of state and her diplomatically challenged boss do with the data. Sfard, the human rights lawyer, notes that the Clinton administration leaned hard on right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to slow settlement, with some success. When Ehud Barak was elected in 1999, Washington turned its attention to renewed peace talks, relaxed its pressure to avoid tensions -- and let new homes sprout up wildly in settlements.

This follows a pattern dating back to 1967: U.S. diplomats have consistently paid more attention to negotiations than to settlement construction. But most Israelis and Palestinians know that the real policy statements are made in concrete and stone. If Rice is serious about Israeli-Palestinian peace, if she wants either of the sides to take the U.S. role seriously, she can start by insisting that settlement construction stops cold.

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