As expected, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's bureau dismissed Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' Washington visit with a disparaging comment: The PA chairman achieved nothing. President George W. Bush is to be commended on his adherence to his agreements with Sharon. The prime minister's attitude toward the road map has proved itself once again. The ball is now entirely in the Palestinian court: No demand has been made on Israel to take steps as long as the Palestinians do not make good on their pledge to dismantle the terror organizations.
Experience shows that a number of days go by until a full picture emerges from White House talks. But even if the first information in this case is true to the gist of the messages Bush transmitted to his guest, Sharon and his aides should not rest on their laurels. It is difficult to attain glory, but it is even more difficult to maintain it for long. The prime minister is still basking in the praise he received from around the world after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. But diplomatic exaltation is a fleeting thing - in the twinkling of an eye it can be replaced with opprobrium. Sharon should roll up his sleeves and get to work - if not because of the ephemeral nature of the cloud on which he is now floating, then because of reality.
Over the past two months, some 1,100 new residents have moved to settlements in the West Bank. As has been the case throughout this year, the new settlers of recent weeks have chosen to live in the four major cities: Upper Modi'in, Upper Betar, Alfei Menashe and Ma'aleh Adumim. In all of 2005, until the beginning of this month, about 12,000 residents have been added to the Jewish population of the West Bank. This figure represents an annual increase of about 5 percent, deriving partly from natural increase and partly (about 5,000 people) from migration from within the Green Line. Most of the new residents are ultra-Orthodox, and therefore have chosen to live in ultra-Orthodox communities.
This trend impacts the size of the large settlement blocs and invites clarification as to their makeup and size.
Ostensibly, the settlement blocs are to absorb settlers who will have to be evacuated after a stable agreement with the Palestinians. It is believed that the number of people living east of the separation fence is about 70,000. That is the logic of the agreement between President George W. Bush and Sharon: American acceptance of the Israeli position that circumstances require border changes and limited annexation (perhaps in exchange for other territories). That is also the logic of reality: The Palestinians are entitled to contiguous territory in which to create a viable state. The lines of the settlement blocs must therefore be clearly defined and serve mainly to absorb settlers living on the periphery - not to expand and become a lodestone for residents coming from within the Green Line.
However, economic considerations, which have motivated most Israelis in recent years to move to the West Bank, are still at work. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, during the first half of 2005, construction began on 1,097 new housing units in the West Bank, as opposed to 860 during the same time last year. There are now 4,207 housing units under construction in the West Bank, mostly located in the big cities, as opposed to 3,984 in 2004.
It should be remembered that the attraction of communities in the territories for people who are not ideologically motivated can be found in the benefits the state grants to those who go to live there. That is the reason mainly ultra-Orthodox families move to the settlements. Is it in the state's interest to pursue this policy? Is it wise to swell these blocs in the West Bank? Would it not be better to channel settlement resources to within the Green Line?
Vice Premier Shimon Peres told Israel Radio Thursday that he opposed construction in the area between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem. In so doing, he showed his awareness of the need to curb the borders of the settlement blocs. Peres is challenging Sharon's position, which continues to encourage Israelis to move to the West Bank. The question is how much the vice premier will be able to influence government policies, and whether Housing and Construction Minister Isaac Herzog, a member of his party, agrees with him.
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