Saturday, January 31, 2009
GEORGE MITCHELL, the Obama administration's new Middle East envoy, encountered a grim landscape on a tour of the region this week. The conflict between Israel and Hamas continues to simmer; no cease-fire has been agreed to. Moderate Palestinian leaders and U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and even Turkey are furious about the heavy loss of life and continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. But Israel is drifting to the right. The leader in polls for next month's election is Binyamin Netanyahu, who favors postponing an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement indefinitely -- and promises to "finish the work" in Gaza.
President Obama has already recognized that closing an Israeli-Palestinian deal on a two-state settlement is not a realistic aim for now; instead, he has spoken of providing "a space where trust can be built." How can the United States do that? One way is the to promote economic development in the West Bank, something that Mr. Netanyahu supports. Mr. Mitchell could also devote himself to constructing a more durable peace in Gaza.
Even as it builds confidence, though, the Obama administration needs to show that the United States is still committed to a separate Palestinian state, and to countering those on both sides who are working against it. That means trying to break the links between Hamas and Iran while pushing the Islamic movement to reconcile with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and allow negotiations with Israel. It also means checking Israel's continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank -- a practice that threatens to make a two-state solution impossible to implement.
A report this week underlined the danger. The Israeli group Peace Now reported that settlement growth in 2008 was 69 percent greater than the previous year -- despite the commitment of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to a Palestinian state. Nearly 600 of the 1,500 new structures were outside the security barrier Israel has built through the West Bank, and more than 250 were in the approximately 100 "outposts" that the Israeli government has itself declared illegal. Mr. Olmert and former prime minister Ariel Sharon repeatedly promised the Bush administration that the outposts would be dismantled and new construction limited to areas that Israel would probably annex as part of a final settlement. Not only did those pledges go unfulfilled, but the West Bank settler population has grown by 35,000, to 285,000, during Mr. Olmert's three years in office.
Mr. Mitchell understands the political as well as the practical importance of settlements. Eight years ago, when he headed an international panel to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he concluded that the "expansion of settlements undermines Palestinians' confidence in Israel's willingness to negotiate . . . a viable Palestinian state." Mr. Mitchell proposed and the Bush administration endorsed a settlement freeze, but President George W. Bush never attempted to obtain Israel's compliance even with its own commitments. By holding the next Israeli government strictly accountable, the Obama administration could send a powerful message to Palestinians and Arab states about its commitment to an agreement -- and, at the same time, preserve the space for it to happen.