West Bank Land Grab: Israel Forges Ahead with Settlement Expansion and Dooms Any Prospect of Peace Accord
Blanche, Ed, The Middle East
AS US PRESIDENT George W. Bush, faced with doom and gloom over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and a host of other foreign policy blunders, belatedly turns his administration's attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the desperate hope of notching up one success before his two-term tenure expires in January 2009, the decades-old issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is likely to deny him the accolades he seeks.
The Israelis are determined to hold onto their heavily guarded colonies across what they call Judea and Samaria, the biblical regions Jewish zealots insist was bequeathed to them by God; so the settlement question is likely to prove to be as intractable as ever, making a political agreement impossible.
"The consistent policy of expanding settlements renders the two-state vision that much more distant and is manoeuvring Israel and the Palestinians into a situation where both will have to coexist in a single bi-national state," according to Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Israel's Peace Now movement, a voluble critic of the settlements.
And therein lies what many Israelis see as the ultimate nightmare: demographic disaster, a shared state that the Palestinians will dominate within a decade or two through sheer weight of numbers.
The Bush administration has largely ignored the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since 2001, but Bush sought to revive the peace process with US-sponsored talks held at Annapolis, in November 2007.
The goal was to reach a peace agreement before Bush leaves office in January 2009 -a prospect Arabs consider remote and one which Israel has paid only lip-service to.
Israel insists that whatever happens, it will retain the large Givat Zeev, Maale Adumim and Ariel settlement blocs. The overwhelming majority of the estimated 270,000 West Bank settlers live in these blocs, with an additional 180,000 in Jewish "neighbourhoods"--the Israeli euphemism for settlements in East Jerusalem.
Even though the United Nations and most of the world, including Washington--though it rarely says so--consider all Jewish settlements in occupied Arab land to be illegal, the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has in recent weeks announced large-scale expansion of some of the largest and most contentious of these settlements, tightening Israel's stranglehold on the West Bank. So far, the US response has been muted, despite the threat this poses to Bush's hunger for a place in history as a peacemaker, underlining just how successful the Israelis have been in deflecting international attention from such a critical and contentious issue. According to Peace Now director Oppenheimer, construction work on one scale or another was underway at 101 of the 122 West Bank settlements during the first three months of 2008.
On 9 March, housing minister Zeev Boim announced plans to build 350 apartments in Givat Zeev, a major settlement bloc just outside Jerusalem, a programme started in 2000 but suspended because of the Palestinian Intifada that broke out on 28 September that year. With violence ebbing, the plan has been revived.
Boim declared that this "is consistent with our long-standing position that building within the large settlement blocs, which will stay a part of Israel in any final-status agreement, will continue." The US State Department said the decision was "unhelpful".
On 17 March, Olmert announced Israel would keep expanding the Har Homa "neighbourhood" in Arab East Jerusalem with hundreds of new apartments. Olmert called Har Homa an "inseparable" part of Jerusalem and said building in other Jewish settlements in the eastern sector of the holy city would continue since Israel expected to retain these, along with major settlement blocs, under a final peace deal.
On 21 March, the right-wing daily Makor-Rishon Hatzofe, reported that 54 residential units, approved by the government in 2003, would be built in the Efrat settlement that is part of the sprawling Gush Etzion bloc southwest of Jerusalem. …