Ariel, West Bank — On a sprawling hill top in this West Bank town Tuesday, a commitment made by Israel’s leader in distant Annapolis this week seemed likely to take one of two possible paths, with the outlines of each already apparent.
“Look up there. My son lives in that container,” gestured Arik Yeffet. “There are leaks in the winter, and the heating is insufficient. He deserves to have a spot of his own. Did we commit a crime?”
Since being evacuated with thousands of other settlers from Gaza two years ago, Yeffet has lived in most of the time in temporary housing in Ariel. He alleged that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s commitment to freeze West Bank settlements — made even before he arrived at the international meeting President Bush held in Annapolis this week to restart Middle East peace negotiations — is already being implemented in Ariel.
In the last week or so, said Yeffet, the Housing Ministry halted preparations for a building tender to allow some 25 Gush Katif families residing in the mobile-home neighborhood since the spring of 2006 to move into permanent housing in the middle of Ariel.
“It’s definitely connected to Annapolis,” said Yeffet. “We see humanitarian gestures toward the Palestinians at the expense of our own wounds.”
But on a mountain peak overlooking the Gush Katif evacuees’ caravans, hundreds of units have been built in the last few years, and foundations have already been laid for 32 more. They portend a quite different future. The new construction is already abutting the fence with the neighboring Palestinian village of Salfit.
“This is going to have the best view in all of Ariel,” said a worker at the site who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job. “All of this has been completed with government support.”
At the entrance to a building site with metal rods sticking up from a concrete base, a billboard advertises the “majestic duplexes” and “garden apartments” already up for sale. A worker at the site said that after getting a green light from the government, work on the 32 new units started just two months ago and will be ready for new owners within two years. According to the site employee, the apartments are scheduled for completion in 18 to 24 months.
At Annapolis on Tuesday, Olmert pledged that Israel would carry out obligations it first undertook to fulfill under the “road map” peace plan, developed by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the UN in 2003. Chief among the Israeli commitments, then and now, is a promise to halt settlement expansion in the occupied territories. In a letter to President Bush one year later, the chief of staff to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also pledged to dismantle 24 illegal outposts established in the last seven years.
If the Olmert government follows to the letter the road map’s requirements, all the development in Ariel could come to a halt. The document requires the government to freeze “all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).”
But the precise definition of the term “settlement freeze” has long been murky. Last week, Olmert pledged not to establish any new settlements and to halt land expropriation for building. But that still allows the government to move forward on an untold number of housing units at varying stages of planning.
“They might say we’re freezing all future units, but we’re going to complete the existing units. There are many points of approval where we can argue. If you ask me, no settlement activity means no bulldozer activity,” said Hagit Ofran, the chief settlement monitor for Peace Now.
“If you’re going to a peace deal, how can you continue to build when you know you’re going to evacuate?”
According to Peace Now, there is active construction in 88 of Israel’s recognized settlements and about 10 outposts.
Meanwhile, none of the 24 illegal outposts Sharon promised Bush he would dismantle have come down.
How likely is it that Olmert will become the first prime minister to check the 40-year expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, as he totters atop an already shaky coalition government?
Indeed, how likely is it that the Palestinians and Israelis will fulfill any of the unfulfilled promises of 2003? For the Palestinians, this includes a promise to crack down on terrorism and dismantle militias. Plus, under a new commitment made at Annapolis, both sides are now pledged to initiate negotiations for a final peace deal, resolving all core issues by the end of next year.
But today, the Palestinian Authority, under President Mahmoud Abbas controls only the West Bank while the Islamist group Hamas, which rejects the peace process, controls Gaza. And no one can say how long the Olmert government, which contains parties adamantly opposed to compromise on some of the core issues, such as Jerusalem, will survive.For a sense of realism, it is useful to revisit the firm language of the commitments made in 2003:
“The following is a performance-based and goal-driven roadmap, with clear phases, timelines, target dates, and benchmarks aiming at progress through reciprocal steps by the two parties,” the road map’s first paragraph declared. “The destination is a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict by 2005, as presented in President Bush’s speech of 24 June, and welcomed by the EU, Russia and the UN in the 16 July and 17 September Quartet Ministerial statements.”The United States back then agreed to monitor each side’s progress and compliance — as it has agreed to do now for the follow-up to Annapolis. But back then, former assistant secretary of state John S. Wolf told The Washington Post, top administration officials never permitted him to make his monitoring reports on compliance public for fear of offending each side.
A senior U.S. official told The Post that the administration has not decided how to set up the monitoring mission for overseeing the commitments made at Annapolis.
The importance of the U.S. role in pushing for such compliance was underlined when one Israeli foreign ministry official was asked about Israel’s failure to fulfill its unconditional promise to Bush back in 2004 to dismantle the 24 outposts Israel itself views as illegal.
“If the administration really wanted us to dismantle the outposts, we’d have done it,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The road map has been dismissed as a dead letter, because of the inability of the parties to carry out their obligations. And here it is back again,” said Yossi Alpher, a former director of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies, who now edits the Israeli-Palestinian web journal Bitterlemons.org. “I don’t think either side is strong enough to manage. Abbas can’t deliver Gaza, I don’t know if he can deliver Hebron or Jenin. Olmert can’t deliver 24 outposts and a settlement freeze.”
According to Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman, Ariel’s population has more than doubled in the last 15 years from 8,000 to 18,000. That puts it behind Modi’in Ilit, Ma’aleh Adumim and Beit Ilit, all of which surround Jerusalem.
“It’s an irrational decision,” Nachman said of Olmert’s commitment to a settlement freeze, “because they can’t take Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim or Modi’in Ilit and compare it to an outpost. I think the prime minister committed to Bush because they were afraid the Arab countries wouldn’t come to Annapolis,” said Nachman. “There is not one empty apartment in Ariel.”
Despite Olmert’s commitment, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry said the implementation of the road map will be gradual and linked to Palestinian implementation of parallel commitments on security.
“Anyone who thinks that either party can fully implement all of their obligations in one day is fooling themselves,” said Mark Regev. Politically, he said, “It’s easier for Israel to move forward on their roadmap obligations in the framework of both sides moving forward, that makes it more feasible. Israeli action in a vacuum of Palestinian inaction makes it much more difficult.”
David Makovsky, a fellow at the of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, echoed support for a gradualist approach for implementing ambitious confidence-boosting measures like a settlement freeze. While the goals are realistic, gestures like a settlement scale-back need to be seen as credible by both publics if they are to succeed in building confidence, he said.
“There’s a fine line. You want to build on the growing trust between Olmert and Abbas to growing confidence between Israeli and Palestinian public,” Makovsky said. “The fear is instead of building confidence it will set off mutual recriminations that critics will use to destroy it.”
Back at the playground of the container neighborhood in Ariel, Gush Katif evacuee Aviguy Dvir said that ultimately, she wasn’t worried about the Annapolis process getting in the way of her ambitions to buy a house for her two daughters and husband.
“With God’s help we’ll get settled here,” she said. “They’ve been talking about it for 20 years. If it were up to all of the prime ministers, they would have moved all of us.”
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