Israel should follow plan to clear Gaza Strip

When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced last week his intention to dismantle nearly all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, more than a few sighs of relief were heard. The Israeli settlement movement is a historic point of conflict in the Middle East peace process, and removal of the settlements is a basic demand of the current road map.

The Israeli move is turning out to inspire less hope than originally thought. Within days, Israel qualified its new policy and revealed that Gaza settlers might be relocated to Jewish settlements on the West Bank. These developments are only the latest in what would seem a deliberate Israeli effort to disengage from the conflict and impose its own, more unilateral settlement.

Construction on its security barrier continues as the patchwork fence arcs well beyond the 1947 Green Line to encompass dozens of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. For nearly a decade, Israel has been hard at work surrounding Jerusalem, a city coveted by both sides, with a network of settlements, roads and security barriers designed to limit Palestinian access. Territorial prizes continue to be absorbed into Israeli territory without the validation of a balanced diplomatic process.

For nearly two years, U.S. policy has sought to sideline Yasser Arafat and replace him with a more moderate and democratic Palestinian leader. U.S. authorities hoped for Palestinian support to curb the suicide bombings and negotiate a settlement. The effort to marginalize the aging Palestinian leader might have been more successful had the Bush administration exerted equal pressure on Israel.

With settlements expanding in the West Bank, construction of the fence continuing apace and the Israeli military regularly raiding the occupied territories, Palestinian moderates have been hard-pressed to justify a halt to the violence or renewed negotiations. Arafat might no longer be a presence on the world stage, but he can thank President George W. Bush for his resurgent popularity among Palestinians.

All this puts the Bush administration in an awkward, if familiar, position. Sharon is slated to meet with Bush within two weeks, talks he will undoubtedly use to ensure continued U.S. support for Israeli policy. The president should use the opportunity to remind Sharon that a unilateral settlement is no settlement at all.