The lack of progress toward a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is an exception to the old saying that success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. The inability to resolve a struggle dating back to 1948 has many fathers and many causes, from the refusal of Israel's Arab neighbors to accept the existence of a Jewish state to Palestinian terrorism to the embrace of the Arab cause by the former Soviet Union as a counterweight to the U.S.-Israeli alliance.
Another obstacle is the proliferation of Jewish settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River since Israel occupied it in 1967 in one of a series of Arab-Israeli wars. Now, as he prepares to leave office under a legal cloud, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has reiterated his view that a stable peace requires the dismantlement of most settlements. "The decision we are going to have to make is a decision we have been refusing for 40 years to look at open-eyed," he told an Israeli newspaper. "The time has come to say these things. The time has come to put them on the table."
Alas, Olmert's words can't atone for his inaction as prime minister to curb settlements in anticipation of the two-state solution he has endorsed. That goal, until recently not a priority of the Bush administration, has been pursued fruitlessly in recent years by the "quartet" of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Meanwhile, Jewish settlements have continued to grow. By one count, 290,000 Israelis live in the West Bank today, an increase of 30,000 since Olmert succeeded the ailing Ariel Sharon as prime minister in January 2006. That figure doesn't include settlements in East Jerusalem, also captured in 1967 and the hoped-for capital of a Palestinian state.
Obviously, settlements aren't the only obstacle to peace; an agreement is unlikely as long as the militant Islamic group Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas, which the United States regards as a terrorist organization, has sent mixed signals about whether it would recognize Israel as part of a peace agreement.
West Bank settlements originally had a military purpose: to protect the "wasp's waist" of Israel from attacks from the east. But especially during Prime Minister Menachem Begin's tenure, settlements -- some illegal even by Israel's reckoning -- were spearheaded by religious zealots who saw the territory as part of a divinely ordained Greater Israel.
Nothing is likely to be accomplished in this arena during the rest of the Bush administration. If the past is prologue, either President McCain or President Obama will plead with Olmert's designated successor, Tzipi Livni, to restrain settlement activity. The really difficult task -- thanks partly to Olmert's government -- will be to evacuate settlements that shouldn't have been built in the first place.