A poorly timed provocation



Av 22, 5765

After completing the evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, the government rushed to implement the second half of Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan: strengthening Israel's hold on the West Bank settlement blocs. Almost simultaneously with the evacuation of Gush Katif, the army began issuing expropriation orders for Palestinian lands around Ma'aleh Adumim on which the separation fence is slated to be built. At the same time, the government decided to build a police station in the area known as E-1, between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem.

Both decisions have major diplomatic significance, and they will influence the nature of any future agreement with the Palestinians. Sharon promised that Ma'aleh Adumim would in the future be part of Israel "and be territorially contiguous with Jerusalem." But the route of the fence, which the cabinet approved in February, at about the same time as it decided toevacuate the Gaza settlements, encompasses a much larger area than the built-up area of the largest settlement in the West Bank. The fence is also slated to surround the Mishor Adumim industrial zone and a few small satellite settlements, as well as a large amount of open space between these settlements. Its eastern extremity will bite off a sizable portion of the area between Jerusalem and Jericho.

Moving the headquarters of the Samaria and Judea District Police to E-1 may perhaps not be problematic in and of itself, but it represents an attempt to create facts on the ground in a disputed area. The American administration vehemently opposes construction in E-1 for fear that it would sever the territorial contiguity of the northern and southern West Bank and impede the future establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

Under American pressure, Sharon froze a plan to build 3,500 housing units in E-1. But Washington does not buy his explanation that iÓ is possible to create "transportational contiguity" for the Palestinians via overpasses and tunnels that would connect the northern and southern West Bank. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is more attentive to the Palestinians' fear that Israel seeks to divide the West Bank into isolated cantons.

It is hard not to view the decisions about the fence and the new construction near Ma'aleh Adumim as a poorly timed provocation. They damage the efforts to rebuild trust with the Palestinian Authority and to strengthen its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, as a partner for future negotiations. They lend credence to the Palestinian claim that the withdrawal from Gaza was merely an Israeli trick designed to obtain international support and to divert attention from its tightening occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They erode the contribution that the successful disengagement made to reviving the diplomatic process and show that Sharon has returned to his old ways in the settlements.

There is widespread agreement within Israel about keeping the settlement blocs, including Ma'aleh Adumim, under any final-status arrangement. But this must be done through an agreement with the Palestinians that takes their needs into account as well, not by creating facts on the ground unilaterally, which will only make the tangle created by the spread of settlements in the West Bank even more complicated. Israel's top priority right now should be resuming a dialogue with the PA, not provocative construction ventures.