Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's brokering of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on border crossings into the Gaza Strip is a good step for the economic development of Gaza and a positive sign of American engagement in the peace process. But the real test for the U.S. administration's commitment to this peace process isn't the Gaza Strip -- it's Israel's settlement expansion and its separation plan for the West Bank.
After a shooting attack on Israeli settlers in the West Bank last month, Israel responded by banning Palestinian movement in private vehicles on main roads in the West Bank. The United States called for lifting of these restrictions but has failed to grasp their implications as a sign of how Israel plans to separate itself from a Palestinian state and how this separation will affect Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's efforts on security reforms.
The restriction on Palestinian use of West Bank roads shows how Israel plans to separate Palestinians from Israeli settlers while maintaining many settlements scattered throughout the occupied West Bank. In September 2004, Israel launched a roads-and-tunnels plan consisting of approximately 24 tunnels and 56 roads that will shift Palestinian traffic away from Israeli settlements and off settler roads.
Under this plan, Israel's 410,000 settlers will enjoy the use of main roads and good highways, while many of the roads or tunnels planned for the 2.2 million Palestinians will be narrow and indirect and will traverse hilly areas -- making them ill suited for building an economically viable Palestinian state. The plan enables Israel to remove checkpoints and thus claim that it is improving the lives of the Palestinians, even as it tightens the noose around Palestinian areas and diminishes the land remaining for a future state.
The planned location of these tunnels and roads, combined with settlement expansion, will result in a Palestinian "state" broken up into three parts on 54 percent of the West Bank, with a citizenry denied access to sufficient land and water resources for an adequate standard of living.
Abbas met with President Bush last month in part to ask that the United States ensure that Israel abide by its obligations under the "road map" peace plan to freeze settlements and dismantle outposts. President Bush reaffirmed these Israeli obligations but would not provide a timetable for insisting on their implementation. He also expressed support for Abbas's rejection of terrorism and pledged to help the Palestinian Authority end attacks, dismantle terrorist infrastructure and maintain law and order. But unfortunately the Bush administration's unwillingness to tackle settlement and road construction with Israel undermines those efforts.
To end violence, the Palestinian president must continue with security reform and ensure accountability. He must also enjoy legitimacy and the confidence of his people in his ability to end the Israeli occupation and deliver, nonviolently, a viable Palestinian state. Israel's settlement and road construction and the lessons of recent history bode ill for his efforts. During the Oslo peace process (1993-2000), a period of relatively little violence, Israel increased its settler population by more than 72 percent and housing units by 52 percent. According to Israeli reports, the decrease in the rates of expansion of settlements from 7 to 9 percent in the 1990s to 4 to 5 percent in the past few years was due, in part, to violence. Israel's unilateral, as opposed to negotiated, evacuation from Gaza reinforced this message. What, then, is the message about the rule of law and violence? It is a message that neither the Palestinian Authority nor the United States wants delivered.
Two days after the Bush-Abbas meeting, an unnamed State Department official indicated that Israeli and Palestinian obligations under the road map are not of equal importance -- the Palestinian Authority's commitment to fight terrorism is more crucial than Israel's obligation to freeze settlements. This U.S. approach of conditioning an Israeli settlement freeze on Palestinian performance is destroying the chances for Abbas to prove to his people that nonviolence and negotiation work. This same approach contributed to the collapse of Abbas's government in August 2003.
President Abbas needs to convince his people in the lead-up to the January 2006 parliamentary elections that ending violence, including violence against settlers as occurred last month, will bring an end to Israeli settlement and lead to a viable Palestinian state. President Bush is right that the Palestinian Authority must earn the people's confidence by holding elections, and win Israel's confidence by rejecting and fighting terrorism. But for Abbas to be successful, he must be able to deliver positive results, not more Israeli unilateral actions. Only the United States has the power to persuade Israel to stop its construction of roads and settlements.
The writer served as an adviser to the Palestinian team negotiating with Israel on settlements and roads policy. She is a research fellow in the Sir Joseph Hotung Program on Law, Human Rights and Peace-Building in the Middle East at the University of London.