JERUSALEM -- Out on Highway 60, the bulldozers are at work.
Next to the road that leads south from Jerusalem to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the big yellow machines are scraping the earth, carving a flat, white, dusty shoulder. Along that strip, a high concrete wall is already being built, part of the newest segment of Israel's "separation fence." The planned route loops around the cluster of settlements known as the Etzion Bloc, putting them on the Israeli side of the de facto border.
Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy is stalled. The bulldozers are not. Once again they are changing the face of the land in a way that makes life far more difficult for Palestinians while damaging Israel's own long-term interests.
As described by Israel's Defense Ministry, the fence is purely a security measure intended to protect Israelis from Palestinian terrorists. Instead of running along the Green Line, the Israel-West Bank border, the route has been drawn to place major "settlement blocs" on the Israeli side -- supposedly only to defend them as well.
Yet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has publicly stated that the settlement blocs will remain part of Israel after a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. He reiterated that point in February while on a working tour of the fence route in the Etzion area. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has said, a bit coyly, that the fence "will have implications for the future border." The Defense Ministry official in charge of planning the fence told me much the same three years ago. Cut past obfuscations, and the fence is the government's assertion, drawn in concrete and barbed wire, of what land it seeks to keep.
The 10 settlements in the Etzion enclave are home to more than 44,000 Israelis. The number keeps rising, boosted by government efforts. In early September the Housing Ministry asked for bids to build more than 340 new units in Beitar Elit, the largest settlement in the enclave. The settlers enjoy the full rights of Israeli citizens. They drive into Israel, or to scattered settlements deeper in the West Bank, without interference, and they will continue doing so.
But note this: Six Palestinian communities are also inside the planned enclave. Twenty thousand people live in them. To travel back and forth to Bethlehem, the nearest urban center, most will have to pass through a single terminal being built along the fence and undergo a security check. That includes women in labor trying to reach the nearest hospital. It includes those who commute to work in the Bethlehem area, along with farmers who work the area's rich land and want to get their produce to market. Teachers from Bethlehem trying to reach their classrooms inside the enclave will need to pass the other way. This is a very partial list of how the fence will tear the fabric of life.
Yet for Palestinian residents the enclave will not be annexed to Israel. No one so much as suggests that they be given citizenship -- or even legal residency and the right to travel and work freely within Israel. Indeed, another stretch of fence is planned along the Green Line, to prevent potential terrorists from crossing into Israel. The six villages will be in Nowhereland, neither part of Israel nor part of the West Bank.
To pursue this project today makes no sense. Olmert's vision of unilateral withdrawal was intended to end rule over the Palestinians and guarantee Israel's Jewish majority, yet allow Israel to keep major settlements. But the conditions created inside enclaves such as the Etzion area are an affront to Israel's democracy and a guarantee of continuing conflict with the Palestinians.
What's more, the summer's battles in Gaza and Lebanon have shattered support in Israel for unilateralism. Without peace, a fence is not enough to protect the country. It is now clear that Israel can pull back safely only if it does so as part of a negotiated agreement. And there is no chance of an accord that will leave large settlement blocs in Israel's hands.
The Israeli Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on lawsuits by Palestinians against the Etzion area fence. Yet the slim chance of judicial salvation does nothing to explain why Olmert's government continues to invest in the failed project of the settlements, which for nearly 40 years has drained Israel's energies, subverted its democracy and harmed its security.
Nor is there any reasonable explanation for why Israel's strategic ally, the United States, virtually ignores what is happening in the Etzion area. The Bush administration has recently shown some inconsistent interest in restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Yet, following a long, mistaken tradition in American diplomacy, it pays more attention to negotiating stances than to the shifting reality in the region.
Meanwhile, out on Highway 60, the bulldozers are preparing a monument to a doomed policy.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977."