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The Guardian/UK

Still Occupied

Israel has announced new construction work in a West Bank settlement. If America will not speak up, then someone else should

Oliver Miles

The question of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories (not again, yawn! - but wait, I'll explain) illustrates one of the differences between journalism and diplomacy. Journalists are taught on day one not to be boring. Diplomats often have to be boring, going on for years and years saying the same thing.

For the last 30 years all governments except that of Israel have agreed that the settlements are illegal, in the same way that British towns in occupied Iraq or Argentinian villages in the occupied Falklands would be illegal.

More recently, and perhaps more practically, all governments including that of Israel have recognised that the settlements are a problem if the two-state solution (separate states of Israel and Palestine) is to be implemented. That is because they make it difficult to create a Palestine state which would be economically and humanly viable. The situation on the ground is very clear in a recent UN presentation (ppt). The whole territory of the hypothetical Palestinian state is crisscrossed by areas which are, pending major surgery, no-go for Palestinians.

This has not come about by accident; it is deliberate. Many of the settlers themselves, and their supporters in the United States, do not support the two-state solution. Their creed is that the territory is Israel's and Israel's alone.

Following the Annapolis conference at which President Bush sought to relaunch the peace process, Condoleeza Rice has been in the region again. At a press appearance with the Palestinian president on March 31 she reaffirmed America's position that settlement activity "should stop, that its expansion should stop, that it is indeed not consistent with Road Map obligations".

On the very same day, and it is not the first time that such announcements have coincided with visits by Rice, Israel radio reported that the Israeli prime minister had promised to unfreeze the construction of 800 housing units in Beitar Illit on the West Bank. He told a party meeting: "We are not building new settlements and are not confiscating lands for new settlements, but Beitar Illit, for example, is not a new settlement."

The significance of all this is clearly understood in the region. Indeed, heavyweight comment from both sides is in unusual agreement. According to the mainstream Israeli paper, Ha'aretz:

"The dynamic of deception is continuing. Deception of the Americans, deception of the voters for parties that etched peace on their standard, deception of the Palestinians and above all self-deception ... Israel is continuing to work against itself, against its future, against any chance for the existence of two nation states side by side ... For years the same old dance has been going on in which the Americans scold and the Israelis promise ... Not the Americans, but rather the Israelis will bear the results of this continued disorder."

According to a respected Palestinian commentator writing in the Beirut Daily Star:

"There is now only one real test of progress, or criterion of political seriousness, in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the short term: can the United States make Israel stop expanding its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories? If not, talk of peace is a cruel hoax ... The Palestinians for their part have to reciprocate, of course, with a move of equal magnitude. But the Palestinians ... cannot make any meaningful move without Israeli permission."

Can anything be done? The conventional wisdom is that only America can do the trick. As Frederic Hof, who was involved in US peacemaking efforts under President Clinton, put it last week in a thoughtful analysis of the American role in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking, "without a comprehensive diplomatic strategy featuring a central American role involving the power and prestige of the presidency, we are choosing a one-state outcome; we are saying 'No' to the prospects of a Jewish democracy and 'No' to the birth of a sovereign Palestinian state".

Unfortunately, America is incapable of the task. Several US presidents have started it in good faith; none has had the stickability to finish. But the theory that the buck stops in the White House does have the advantage that it lets everyone else off the hook. We do occasionally hear the voice of Moscow or even the voice of Paris or Brussels. When did we last year the voice of London?

Oliver Miles is a retired ambassador and the chairman of MEC International.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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