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Dealing By 'Creating Facts'

By Stephen S. Rosenfeld

Friday, October 2, 1998; Page A27
The Washington Post

The latest visits of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the White House represent a further collective effort to resolve by negotiation and consensus the future of the territories captured by Israel in 1967.

But there is, of course, another way to resolve this crucial question. It is the way often though not exclusively chosen by the Israelis -- the way of capture, occupation and imposition, of "creating facts" on the ground by establishing and expanding Jewish settlements.

So far, as a pro-Palestinian research organization called the Foundation for Middle East Peace accurately observes, international diplomacy has largely failed to redress Israel's transformation, by its settlements policy, of the occupied territories. That challenge is scheduled to be confronted in the "permanent status" talks that are to follow the interim negotiations the United States is struggling to wrap up now.

Meanwhile, entirely at Israel's discretion, settlement building goes on apace. The foundation cited above figures that about 350,000 Israelis currently live across the pre-1967 cease-fire line separating Israel from the West Bank and Gaza; about half of them live in annexed East Jerusalem. These settlements enrage the spectrum of Palestinians, convince them that Israelis are interested more in land than peace and thereby dull the Palestinians' incentive to satisfy Israel's other, reasonable demands at either the interim or the permanent-status stage.

These settlements come to be seen as facts, not up for change. The more settlers move in and the more deeply they put down roots, the harder it will be to remove them and the higher the price the Israelis will expect the Palestinians to pay.

I bring up this disagreeable picture because tension is now building over Yasser Arafat's warning that, in the absence of satisfaction at the bargaining table, he may unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state when the five-year Oslo clock ticks down next May. Procedurally and substantively, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at Blair House this week, a unilateral declaration is unacceptable. He offered his own warning that such a declaration would relieve Israel of its Oslo obligations to the Palestinians.

Interesting, I said to Netanyahu. Since unilateral action is unacceptable and since the whole post-1967 Israeli settler movement was and is unilateral, are you acknowledging that the settlements are illegitimate?

No, said Netanyahu: The Oslo agreement put no limits on Israeli settlements. Anyway, most population growth in old settlements occurred in the last, Labor government. And substantial Arab construction that was either illegal or against regulations also went on in the West Bank.

I found it an unresponsive answer. Israel is not without historical and religious claims, not to speak of security claims, for its interest in settlements. But none of these claims can be fairly invoked and imposed without due regard for Palestinian interests and without direct consultation with Palestinian authorities.

In short, if peace is the objective, none of these claims should be asserted unilaterally, from a position of military strength. Surely Netanyahu understands perfectly the inconsistency he is indulging in condemning unilateral gestures when they serve Palestinian interests and conducting a unilateralist policy when it becomes an Israeli nation-building tool.

Note Yasser Arafat's words in a June interview with Die Welt: "Israel's security is contained in the Oslo accords -- but not the security of the settlers. We made peace with Israel within the borders of 1967 -- and not with the settlers. . . . [Settlements] are illegal. The land on which the settlements were built was stolen. The water is stolen. No one pays a penny for it.

"Israelis find it completely all right to confiscate the land of the Palestinians and to occupy it. I cannot accept that. We agreed with Israel in Oslo that we would find a joint solution for the Israeli settlements. Israel must live up to that; we are prepared to do so. Foreign settlers are unacceptable in the long term" (italics added).

There appears to be some bargaining space in the Arafat statement. But does he have a bargaining partner in Israel? Can Netanyahu loosen his embrace of one-way unilateralism?

(c) Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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