Analysis / Sharon, Bush and the settlements

By Aluf Benn

Haaretz

Adar2 17, 5765

The efforts to expand the "settlement blocs" in the West Bank and to fill sensitive areas between the Green Line and the separation fence with thousands of housing units are intended to expand "the narrow waistline" around Israel's population centers.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to take advantage of international support for his plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip to establish facts on the ground in the West Bank. He has made no secret of his intentions: In the December 2003 Herzliya speech in which he first presented his disengagement plan he declared that Israel would "strengthen its control of other parts of the Land of Israel, which will be an inseparable part of the State of Israel in any future agreement."

News of renewed building in Ma'aleh Adumim, the Etzion Bloc and the western portions of the northern West Bank arouses little public attention, with disengagement a much sexier issue as far as politicians are concerned. The construction comes up only when it irritates someone in Washington. Officially, the Americans continue to oppose construction over the Green Line. At the same time, they are not working too hard to prevent the strengthening of the settlement blocs.

Sharon's bureau has the impression that the Americans have silently acquiesced to expanded construction in the territories. The problem is that the "Bush letter" which Sharon received last year and which recognizes the existence of "Israeli population centers" in the territories, relates only to final-status negotiations. These are not currently underway nor are they likely to be in the near future. The issue therefore becomes: If the settlement blocs are to be annexed to Israel in any case, why not build in them now? On the other hand, Israel promised two years ago to freeze construction "over the existing lines" in the settlements.

How should this contradiction be resolved? The two parties have avoided setting an exact definition of "blocs" or of lines beyond which construction would not be allowed.

Last week, Israel's E-1 program to connect Ma'aleh Adumim to Jerusalem with 3,500 new housing units was unveiled. This plan would cut off territorial contiguity for the future Palestinian state and surround Arab East Jerusalem with Jewish neighborhoods, making it difficult for the Palestinians to turn East Jerusalem into their capital. The Palestinians and their Israeli supporters have been warning for years that such a plan would spell the end of a two-state solution.

But Sharon's bureau says the U.S. supports the project, at least behind closed doors.

Sharon is in a bind. He needs to show he is holding onto the settlement blocs to avoid further desertions to the Likud rebel camp. Yet on the foreign policy front, he has had to keep a low profile on construction.

But according to statements by U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer to the mass-circulation Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, there is no understanding between the U.S. and Israel concerning the settlement blocs. Both left and right rejoiced at the report - here was the proof that Sharon had lied and had received nothing from Bush in return for the disengagement. Kurtzer subsequently denied the report, reiterated the president's promise regarding the settlement blocs, and praised Sharon's credibility.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also backtracked on her harsh criticism of the E1 plan, and in a Washington Post interview returned to ambiguous requests for clarifications.

One again, Sharon came out on top, and paid neither a domestic nor an international price for his critical decisions to strengthen the "blocs."