naomi chazan 88.
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The Hanukka settlement spurt flies in the face of the Annapolis process. It not only calls into question the Olmert government's capacity to abide by its explicit obligations, it also casts doubts on its willingness to do so. No country can expect to gain anything by seemingly pursuing a lasting peace with one hand and by constantly compromising it with the other. Israel is no exception.
The joint understanding proclaimed by President George W. Bush at the Annapolis conference is crystal clear. Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas agreed to launch negotiations, "including all core issues without exception," to further the goal of establishing two states, Israel and Palestine, "living side by side in peace and security."
At Israel's insistence, and with the acquiescence of the Palestinian leadership, both parties also confirmed their commitment to "immediately implement their respective obligations under the performance-based road map," and, significantly, to continue in this spirit "until they reach a peace treaty."
By common agreement, the United States has assumed the task of monitoring these efforts and judging their fulfillment by both parties.
The first phase of the revived road map - until recently deemed by many to be dead and buried - imposes detailed obligations on both Israel and the Palestinians to be carried out in parallel (the numerous reservations registered by both sides notwithstanding). The Palestinians must undertake a series of security and capacity-building measures. In turn, Israel has agreed to comply, among others, with the very clear and unambiguous provisions on settlements. These involve the immediate dismantlement of settlement outposts erected since March 2001, and a freeze on "all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)." It is far from keeping its word on this score.
The construction of nine outposts throughout the West Bank by the Eretz Yisrael Faithful this past Sunday - with or without the collusion of the Yesha Council - is another in a series of ostentatiously defiant measures taken by militant opponents of any Israeli-Palestinian accord. As long as these implants are removed forthwith, the present leadership can assert that it bears no responsibility for these actions, which have also plagued all its predecessors. For years, every chance for a lasting rapprochement has been greeted by a flurry of spoiler activity of this sort; the post-Annapolis actions are but another chapter in this ongoing political saga.
ON CLOSER scrutiny, however, such a claim is somewhat misleading, if not purposefully disingenuous. The attempt to establish a civilian presence in the sensitive E1 enclave between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim (euphemistically dubbed Mevaseret Adumim - the Harbinger of Adumim), just meters away from the almost completed district police headquarters located precisely there, underlines the duplicity that has accompanied Israeli settlement policy for far too long. It is not really possible to simultaneously condemn illegal settler action and to defend government construction on the very same spot. Both are in obvious violation of the recent iterations of the road map; both threaten to compromise the final-status negotiations.
An even more flagrant violation of the Annapolis understandings is the formal decision to build an additional 300 housing units in the controversial area of Har Homa - long a bone of contention between Israel, the Palestinians and the international community. Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim's decision to issue tenders bears all the accoutrements of officialdom. The government's explanation that Har Homa is part of the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem rings very hollow indeed given the sensitive history of this controversial neighborhood - one third of which lies on expropriated Palestinian lands.
The future of Jerusalem is the very heart of the core issues on the Israeli-Palestinian agenda.
This is the first major test of the sincerity and dedication of all involved in the renewed and re-worked triple-track process launched barely two weeks ago. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was quick to lodge a formal complaint to the United States as arbiter of the proceedings. Condoleezza Rice, in turn, made her displeasure evident, stating that such a move "could not help build confidence." Her sentiments have been echoed by all the leaders of the Quartet in the past few days.
It is not enough, however, to issue mild verbal denunciations. The standing of the US as an honest broker depends, to no small degree, on its ability to follow its statements with actions. The fate of the fledgling process may be contingent on the American capacity to convince the current Israeli leadership to desist from any semblance of settlement activity.
The Olmert government's credibility - and by extension that of the State of Israel in the months ahead - is also at stake. Tensions within the coalition, in these circumstances, may be a mitigating factor; they do not provide a valid reason for flouting recently reaffirmed agreements. Neither does the all-too-familiar tendency to test the waters, to explore the limits of what Israel can do without arousing the tangible ire of international actors, not to speak of its key ally.
This is not a game. If Israel truly wants to achieve an end to the conflict, it must take the minimal steps required to achieve its own stated objectives.
Settlement expansion and negotiations in good faith ("to bring an end to bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict; to usher in a new era of peace based on freedom, security, justice, dignity, respect and mutual recognition") do not go together. Israel must halt all settlement activity - whether unauthorized, semi-formal, or official - immediately.
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