by Ferry Biedermann
(IPS) West Bank --
concrete and metal supports of three rows of nearly finished houses line a windswept hillside near the Israeli settlement of Beit El, just north of the Palestinian town of Ramallah on the West Bank.
The new development lies well outside the built-up area of the settlement. This is exactly the kind of expansion that many in the international community are trying to prevent at the moment, when a shaky cease-fire can be undone by any provocation.
The United States took a leading role in getting both sides to agree to the truce that went into effect three weeks ago after eight months of violence. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director George Tenet formulated the cease-fire conditions.
Late last month President George W. Bush met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the second time in three months. Reports of the meeting suggest that Bush urged Sharon to show more flexibility towards the Palestinians. Currently, Secretary of State Colin Powell is touring the region to shore up the fragile cease-fire. Despite the truce there has been daily violence, claiming lives on both sides.
The new Bush administration is being sucked into the Middle East despite its earlier stated intention to the contrary. The closer involvement seems to lead to a divergence of views between the Americans and their Israeli allies. The Israelis insist on a total cessation of violence before any political issues can be dealt with. The U.S. no longer seems to agree.
What the Palestinians are really after is a settlement freeze as proposed by the Mitchell Commission. The commission, headed by the former U.S. senator George Mitchell, reported to the international community on the causes of the second Palestinian intifada -- uprising -- which erupted in September last year. It concluded that the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories was largely responsible for the outbreak of violence.
The United States and the European Union supported the findings of the Mitchell Commission. The international community regards settlements as illegal and as an obstacle to achieving a permanent peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
"This place will always be part of Israel," says Uri Ariel, the head of the Beit El local council. Representatives of every Israeli government left and right have made the trek to his prefab offices, says Ariel. They all pledged their commitment to the future of Beit El, which lies in the biblical heartland of ancient Israel.
"Since we are here to stay, why shouldn't we build?" says Ariel. Right-wing Israelis regard the settlements as a way of maintaining control over the West Bank, which they call by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria.
While he is quietly self-confident when he talks about the future of Beit El, Ariel loses his cool when the name comes up of the first president Bush, the father of the current president.
"George Bush made a huge mistake by withholding money to try and pressure us into a construction freeze," fumes Ariel. He refers to $10 billion in loan guarantees that the U.S. administration withheld in 1991 in order to get Israel to abandon its expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
policy makers are increasingly concerned about the possibility of a renewed clash over settlements with the United States. These worries emerged first when the new Bush administration took power in February. It inherited key personnel from the old one and a repeat of the 1991 confrontation seemed in the offing.
Initially though, relations developed remarkably smoothly. The hands-off approach by the Bush team left the new Sharon government largely free to act as it saw fit.
"We are very pleasantly surprised," said David Clayman, director of the Jerusalem office of the American-Jewish Congress, a pro-Israel lobby group. "The policies of the new Bush and Sharon administrations appear to fit together seamlessly," said Clayman, before Bush turned up the pressure during Sharon's recent White House visit.
Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and current Sharon confidant Zalman Shoval sounds a more cautionary note. Israel, he says, will have a hard time resisting American calls for a more flexible approach towards the Palestinians. "It is not in Israel's interest to go against the Americans, especially not with this administration which puts an emphasis on American interests," says Shoval.
International pressure has in the past intermittently led the Israelis to impose limitations on settlement construction. The Israelis grudgingly accepted the principle of a freeze when they first signed the Oslo-interim peace agreements in 1993.
In practice, though, construction has increased dramatically since the start of the peace process. The settler population has more than doubled, from 116,000 to 250,000. The area taken up by the settlements also has increased substantially.
The current left-right "national unity" government too has embedded a promise not to build new settlements in its coalition guidelines. These do not, however, mention the expansion of existing settlements. The government insists on a formula that allows construction to meet "natural growth."
Since coming to power in March, the Sharon government has announced the construction of 734 housing units in the occupied West Bank. This does not include additional construction in new Jewish neighborhoods surrounding Jerusalem that are also built on occupied lands.
Because of such practices Israeli governments -- both left and right wing -- have lost credibility in the eyes of the Palestinians and the international community. This is why Israel is now facing demands for a total and absolute freeze in settlement construction.
The two wings of Israel's government are at odds over the demand for a settlement freeze. When Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, from the Labor party announced last month that he wanted to dismantle 15 new settler outposts, ministers from Sharon's right-wing Likud party blocked him.
The right wing ministers in particular say they do not want to offer any concessions to the Palestinians as long as the violence continues. They are not very likely, though, under any circumstances to welcome a settlement freeze. U.S. pressure on Sharon may convince them that they don't have a choice.
July 9, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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