THE GOVERNMENT OF Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Israel has made clear that some of the 42 illegal hilltop settlements set up on the West Bank in the waning days of the Netanyahu government will be removed. At the same time, the government has approved tenders for up to 2,600 housing units within existing settlements. Palestinians and others who regard unilateral settlement activity as antithetical to the peace process have decried the new building approvals -- not to mention the fact that most of the hilltop settlements will remain -- and wonder whether Mr. Barak's approach differs more in style than in substance from that of his predecessor.
But Prime Minister Barak deserves more credit than the comparison to Mr. Netanyahu's government gives him. In including in his government parties close to the settler movement, one of which controls the housing ministry, Mr. Barak is attempting something truly ambitious: to bring elements within the settler movement along with a vigorous peace process.
The building he is permitting is overwhelmingly in areas that surround Jerusalem and that are not, in the view of any electable Israeli government, going to be given over to Palestinian control. By permitting a certain amount of building there, in other words, Mr. Barak does not assert final Israeli control over lands he does not already intend to keep. He does, however, send a message to the settlers that he regards their presence in certain areas as legitimate. That in turn helps calm the potentially explosive divisions within Israeli society toward the peace process. At the same time, Mr. Barak's apparent willingness to uproot illegal settlements indicates that he will not accept settlement as a way quietly to attach additional Palestinian territory to Israel. If Mr. Barak's two-pronged strategy succeeds, it may allow a far wider swath of Israeli society than has ever been part of the peace camp to come to terms with final status arrangements.
The strategy's downside is that it prejudges issues that would be better resolved in the context of the final status talks; it invests in the goodwill of the Israeli right wing at the expense of alienating the Palestinians. It essentially tells the Palestinians that Israel alone will determine the fate of settlements that are a deep affront to Palestinian national aspirations. Mr. Barak's desire to make peace on behalf of all but the very fringes of Israeli society is undeniably attractive. But he also is recognizing a legitimacy for the settler movement in the context of peacemaking that is challenging for those who regard unilateral settlements as obstacles to peace. The line Mr. Barak wishes to draw between settlement activity that will not disrupt the peace process and settlements that will may prove easier to anticipate in theory than in practice.