As near as I can figure it out, the current situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians comes down to this: The government of Israel is demanding that the Palestinians allow their homeland to be colonized, and that they do it without complaint.
That, anyway, seems to be the sum and substance of all the to-ing and fro-ing about "settlements," which are, in actuality, nothing more than colonial outposts planted in the midst of a deeply embittered and hostile population.
Not surprisingly, this has not gone down well with the Palestinians, who have been anything but uncomplaining over the last nine months. Their new intifada, which has featured some of the
most gruesome and blood-curdling acts of violence in recent memory, has been largely a sustained rebellion against Israel's colonization of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
For all the feral viciousness of the worst acts of violence against Israelis--the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah and the recent slaughter of two Israeli teenagers near Bethlehem in the West Bank stand out--the Palestinians have fared far worse in terms of numbers. At least 448 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the rebellion, as compared with 100 Israelis (including 13 Israeli Arabs). And yet there has been no letup in the level of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation. On the contrary, it has escalated in recent weeks.
That ought to be worrying to the Israelis: such a willingness to die suggests that many Palestinians feel they have nothing to lose. So, for that matter, does the resort to the poor man's nuke, the suicide bomb.
And yet the Israeli government persists in building and enlarging settlements. On Tuesday, the government's housing minister announced plans for hundreds of new dwellings for Israelis on the West Bank. This even as an American envoy, William Burns, was beginning to try to get security talks going again between the two sides.
But for the fact that the United States has been so deeply involved in the region over the years--as guarantor of Israel's existence and security; as target of Arab anger and terror; as a once and (one hopes) future broker of peace--most Americans would, I suspect, remain as blissfully ignorant of the Middle East as of most other parts of the world.
But ignorance and non-involvement are not options at this late date, as the Bush administration has quickly discovered. The only issue is what will be the character of America's involvement.
George W. Bush could do far worse than to follow the example of his father, who during his term in the White House laid down a marker with the government of Yitzhak Shamir by withholding American loan guarantees for settlement-building in the occupied territories.
(Despite that show of resolve by the elder Bush, the population of the Israeli settlements has roughly doubled over the last decade, to 200,000.)
Ariel Sharon, the current Israeli prime minister, not only seems committed to further colonization, but he also appears convinced he can squelch the Palestinian uprising by the application of superior force.
He is, of course, welcome to try that--the Israeli public apparently is willing to tolerate it. But he is not entitled to American support in that effort.
Happily, Secretary of State Colin Powell already has spoken up once when Sharon went over the line by sending troops into Palestinian territory and holding it. Sharon quickly reacted by withdrawing.
Like his father before him, George W. Bush must find a lever with which to exert pressure on Sharon over the settlements. They are now, as they have been from the beginning, not just an obstacle to peace, but an incitement to hideous violence. America must not be a party to that incitement.