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America Must Challenge Netanyahu's Obstructionism

Middle East: Palestinians won't stand for the Israeli prime minister redefining Oslo.

July 29, 1998|JAMES J. ZOGBY | James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute

Palestinians today are poorer, have less freedom of movement, less hope and are more fractured than they were five years ago.

Even the word "peace" has become an epitaph. The Palestinian situation is quite desperate. Not satisfied with merely stalling forward movement in the process and redefining the terms of Oslo, the Israeli government has continued to dramatically alter the physical situation in Palestine. It is likely that after months of maneuvering, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ultimately might accept the U.S. proposal to yield another 13% of land to the Palestinians, but he appears to be laying the groundwork to transform the 13% from a prize into a trap.

Netanyahu displayed this same approach in Hebron. First, he shaped an agreement that left Hebron only slightly less occupied, with the heart of the city cut out in order to provide security for a small handful of fanatic settlers who continue to wreak havoc on the city. He then proceeded to suck whatever life had been breathed back into the peace process by immediately beginning construction at Jabal Abu Ghneim.

In the past year and a half, with attention focused on Jabal Abu Ghneim, the Israelis have proceeded to implement a sophisticated plan for the rest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Ignoring oblique U.S. calls for a "time out" in "unilateral actions," the Israelis have pursued an extensive building program of settlements and roads that have changed the face of the West Bank.

Some U.S. officials attempt to diminish the impact of these efforts using a Nixon-era expression: "There has been a decrease in the percentage of increase" of new settlement construction. During the past five years, construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem has, in fact, doubled. And this has been coupled with more than 700 home demolitions by Israelis that have created great fear among many Palestinians.

The settlement and road construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem must be seen to be understood and believed. Settlements are now huge and sprawling cities that surround and engulf eastern Jerusalem. Having lost their surrounding lands and with new Jewish construction right up to their doorsteps, the tiny Palestinian villages in the environs of the city have been swallowed whole by stone behemoths that will house tens of thousands of new settlers.

Where hills are not being razed for new housing construction, they are being cut through for massive superhighways. These new roads, with their tunnels and overpasses, accomplish two objectives: Most settlers can now take a new superhighway direct from their settlement to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv without ever crossing through an Arab village. And the roads also cut the West Bank into ribbons so that the Arab areas are severed from one another.

While Ariel Sharon proposes that other roads may be built in the future to connect the Arab areas--creating a bizarre spider-like grid of separate highway systems--the simple intent of these road schemes is clear: Israel is literally laying plans for the permanency of the settlements, expanding their population and size as rapidly as possible.

The notion of a super-municipality for an expanded Jerusalem, recently floated by Netanyahu, merely gave expression to what already is being done.

When the unilateral announcement was initially met with hostility, Netanyahu dissembled. The plan was not, he said, an effort to expand Jerusalem both west and east, although that is precisely what he had initially stated. He now says that it will only expand to the west. To the east, he proposed that he will extend only municipal services and zoning and establish links by roads, including a ring road far out into the West Bank.

The fact that most of this is practically already in place has gone unreported. Netanyahu was not unveiling a new proposal, but a reality that, for all intents and purposes, exists. What is not visible from the road traveling northward from Nablus to Jericho to survey what is to be the Palestinian 13% are the Israeli settlements just beyond the hills to the east and west.

To give the Palestinians a ribbon of land is, at best, a cruel joke. This is not peace through negotiations; it is peace by fiat, with Palestinian dependency insured.

Netanyahu is not a bungler. There is a clear design to his machinations. He has set out to redefine Oslo and arrest its forward movement. Despite pressures from his right and left, he has held together a fractured coalition, stood up to the United States and made only minimal concessions.

This much the Arab world expected. What is most disturbing, however, is the failure of the United States to mount a challenge adequate to Netanyahu's obstructionism.

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