As President Bush develops his latest approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the administration does not intend to make a significant effort to curb the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, one of the most troubling irritants to Palestinians.
The White House routinely calls on the Israelis to stop settlement activity, but U.S. officials have concluded that there is nothing to be gained in further pressing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, an impassioned promoter and defender of a settler population that has grown by two-thirds during the past decade.
Yet, as Bush confronts criticism from European and Arab governments that consider him overly supportive of Sharon, some Middle East specialists say a stronger stand on settlements would send a welcome signal to the Palestinians and improve the administration's credibility.
"The symbolism of the settlements cannot be underestimated," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. Many Palestinians interpret the ongoing construction as evidence that Israel intends to defy calls for the return of land captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
In recent comments, however, the White House has said it views the settlement issue as a matter to be resolved only after progress on other fronts. "It comes down importantly to a question of timing," a senior administration official said yesterday.
Former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell, who helped draft the confidence-building measures Bush has endorsed, is an advocate of a tougher line on settlements. In recent Washington appearances, Mitchell emphasized that demands cannot be made of the Palestinians alone. He credited Bush's June 24 speech on the Middle East with requiring action from Sharon's government but made clear the administration must follow through.
"The problem always is the first step," Mitchell told the Brookings Institution. "And it's clear in my view that they have to be relatively simultaneous, that they have to be relatively reciprocal, that they must be of equal, relatively equal, weight. You can't ask someone to take a step of 10 yards in response to a step of 10 inches."
The Palestinians' first step should be a halt in violence, Mitchell wrote in the 2001 report, before violence intensified and the Israeli government clamped down in Palestinian areas. The Israelis' first step, he said, should be a settlement freeze. "A cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the government of Israel freezes all settlement construction activity," the report said.
Opposition to settlements has been official U.S. policy for more than 20 years. But the Israeli population in the West Bank has steadily increased, topping 200,000 in the most recent count, plus about 175,000 who live on territory annexed by the city of Jerusalem. Israeli governments usually describe expansion as the "natural growth" of existing communities, but Sharon's government appears to have made a priority of increasing the size and number of settlements.
Monitors from the Israeli group Peace Now, which opposes settlements, say more than 40 settlements have been created since Sharon took office, many of them far from any land inhabited by Israelis. Old and new settlements tend to take up land for roads and attract additional Israeli security, multiplying the Israeli presence and angering Palestinians.
The Israeli government pledged this month to dismantle some outposts, but Sharon has said Israel will never withdraw from areas it considers part of the Jews' ancestral homeland. The difficulty of budging him is a factor in the administration's reluctance to intervene, officials say.
Bush made headlines on April 4 by calling on Israel to take swift action to lift the pressure on Palestinians. He said the Sharon government should halt its military occupation of urban areas and stop settlement activity. Bush has repeated the settlement wording since, but the words have not been matched by anything like the action of his father, former president George H.W. Bush, who withheld $400 million in loan guarantees to Israel.
Administration officials and policy analysts attribute the choice to several things. They say Bush views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict largely through the prisms of terrorism and domestic politics, and thinks the United States should not pressure Sharon's government while Palestinian violence continues.
According to this view, Israelis are suffering at the hands of a Palestinian leadership that has repeatedly angered the White House by failing to live up to its promises. While Palestinian extremists continue to strike, the thinking goes, the Israeli government should not face U.S. dictates, especially when Congress and politically active Christian conservatives think Sharon deserves a free hand.
An exception is the State Department, where Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has argued that the administration should make more substantial demands on Israel. Officials say Powell worked to ensure that Bush's speeches included references to settlement activity, military withdrawal and other reciprocal actions by Israel.
Following Bush's speeches, Powell made a point of emphasizing Israeli responsibilities. He told reporters Thursday that the problem of new and existing settlements must be solved "in order for there to be coherence to the Palestinian state." As for timing, he said solutions would come "in due course."
If the administration chose, commentators say, it could increase its opposition to Israeli settlements while continuing to condemn terrorism and the corruption of the Palestinian Authority. The idea would be to provide an incentive for Palestinians to end their attacks.
"People in the State Department and elsewhere say we're looking at various steps that do not have a security downside, that can show the Israelis are serious," said Edward Abington, a political consultant for the Palestinian Authority in Washington. Abington thinks a vigorous response to Israeli settlements would fit such a goal, but he sees no sign the administration is prepared to act.
"They could develop a two-prong policy" said Ehud Sprinzak, an Israeli visiting professor at Georgetown University. "It's not enough to mention that settlements must stop. President Bush actually has to remind everyone of the American position that the vast majority of settlements are illegal and should be removed."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company