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TRUDY RUBIN U.S. must help guide peace in Mideast



Published: Wed, February 16, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Should we be hopeful that there is a new opening for peace between Palestinians and Israelis?

Israeli leader Ariel Sharon just shook hands with newly elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at Sharm el Sheikh, where they declared a truce after four years of fighting.

Past summits (and truces) have led downhill, and Abbas has yet to prove he can control Islamist groups such as Hamas, which fired mortars at Israeli settlements the day after the summit. Yet I think there is a sliver of hope under certain conditions.

Prime among them is whether President Bush wants to make progress toward Mideast peace part of his legacy. If he is serious about advancing his "vision" of two states side by side, there might be real movement before his term ends.

If the administration sits on the sidelines for the next year -- and all indications point in this direction -- the bubble of optimism will evaporate fairly soon.

Why so?

Because Sharon and Abbas have very different expectations about what should follow the handshake, and strong U.S. guidance will be needed to keep them on track.

'Road map'

Abbas, who opposed the Palestinians' violent uprising (the intifadah) from the beginning, is trying to stop all Palestinian acts of violence against Israelis. This is called for by the "road map," an international peace plan Bush has endorsed.

Abbas hopes he can jaw Hamas into laying down arms and that this will lead to renewed peace talks.

Israel wants Abbas to crush Hamas (which might be necessary) but without any guarantee by Sharon that doing so would lead to resumption of political negotiations.

The road map also calls for the freezing of any new construction in Israeli settlements simultaneous with the Palestinian crackdown on violence. In addition, it mandates the immediate removal of scores of illegal Israeli settlement outposts.

In reality, expansion of Jewish settlements continues apace on the West Bank, in ways that chop that territory into cantons and could soon foreclose the option of a viable Palestinian state.

Palestinians won't continue to back Abbas' efforts to curb Hamas unless they believe it is leading to negotiations, as called for by the road map. They may accept a delay in resuming peace talks. But they will reject Abbas' strategy if Sharon keeps shifting the goalposts during the game.

Contrary to the expectations of some U.S. officials, an easing of Israeli roadblocks and more Western aid money won't eclipse Palestinian worries about settlement expansion.

Drive around the West Bank -- as I did on a recent visit -- and you can see construction cranes expanding settlements and settler roads.

From the town of Nirit, on the Israeli side of the 1967 border with the West Bank, I could see Israel's security fence about three kilometers (almost two miles) away and, on the far side of it, the Israeli settlement of Alfei Menashe. I watched two huge yellow Israeli cranes digging up the soil between the fence and the Israeli border to add to a row of new two-story houses. The apparent purpose of the construction is to fill in the area between the fence and the 1967 border and to create a solid block of Jewish settlement that links Alfei Menashe and Nirit.

Court suit

Amira Bahat, an Israeli resident of Nirit, told me the purpose of the construction was to blur the 1967 border. Nirit is supposed to provide sewage and other services for this settlement expansion, but most Nirit homeowners oppose the idea as inimical to peace -- and a group has filed a court suit to prevent the connection.

The reality is that the future boundaries of Israel are being changed not through negotiation, but on the ground.

Wait, you say, isn't Sharon committed to withdrawing troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip this year, along with four isolated settlements in the West Bank? Yes, indeed. Doesn't that mean he will be willing to give up more West Bank settlements? Not necessarily.

Most Palestinians believe the words of Sharon's key adviser Dov Weisglass about the purpose of the Gaza withdrawal: He famously said Israel was pulling out of Gaza in order to strengthen the settlements on the West Bank. Palestinians fear Gaza first will be Gaza last.

X Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune InforImation Services.




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