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The headlines about reforms in the Palestinian Authority are reminiscent of the reports about efforts to establish a government without Haredim. Both are meant to distract public opinion from the real story. Inflating the importance of the argument between the prime minister and the American president's envoy about Yasser Arafat's status helps Ariel Sharon pull the wool over the eyes of everyone. Assessments on the prime minister's desk anyway say there isn't a single Palestinian leader who can, or wants to, lay down the law in the territories for the glory of the Greater Land of Israel.

"When the Palestinians speak with us about reforms," says a senior American official, "it's clear to everyone they are meant to advance toward Palestine, and not perpetuate Bantustans." Therefore, anyone talking about reforms without making clear they are meant to lead the Palestinians to independence - said the official - is deceiving themselves or the public. A European diplomat last week asked if anyone would expect the Irish Republican Army to lay down its arms in exchange for a vague promise that afterward it would take part in discussions about "painful concessions."

Former American envoy Dennis Ross recently explained that ignoring the gap between the positive atmosphere around the negotiating table and the deterioration that took place on the ground in the territories was the real flaw in the Oslo process. One of the decisive factors in the territories during those negotiations about its future was the accelerated construction of settlements. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the settler population (not counting East Jerusalem) at the end of 1993, right after the signing of the Oslo accords, was some 100,000. At the end of 2000, it was more than 190,000, a 90 percent increase.

Those who sent William Burns, Ross's heir, are now repeating the same mistake. While they talk with Sharon about reforms, a regional conference and renewed confidence-building measures between the sides, their spy satellites are showing how the settlers are taking over more Palestinian land. Washington chooses to ignore the fact that settlers make a mockery of the "campaign" their patron is allegedly leading against those who reject a Palestinian state. Peace Now researchers put together a report based on aerial photographs in February. There was nothing in it to surprise the Americans. They didn't need to wait for Ofek 5 to stick the following outrageous statistic into their drawers: Since the national unity government was established, at least 34 new outposts have been established. Most have not been dismantled, and those that have been, were immediately reestablished.

The Americans know that Israeli annexation plows ahead, under the cover of the defense minister and foreign minister, who don't lift a finger against the settlements, even though the coalition agreement between Labor and Likud explicitly states that "there will be no new settlements." They know IDF officers and regional council heads, who get their salaries from the public coffers, are cooperating in these illegal initiatives.

A recently issued B'Tselem report, the most comprehensive study of the settlements issued in recent years, says Israel has created a separation-cum-discrimination regime in the territories. The regime enables the settlers to take over land, establish separate planning institutions and use one law - civilian - for Israelis, and another law - military - for Palestinians. The Supreme Court gives this unique phenomenon a legal sheen, whether by legitimizing wrongdoing by the government and army, or by generally refusing to intervene to prevent harm to the Palestinian residents.

And what reform is Israel proposing to correct these distortions of the law and proper rules of government? To mark 35 years of occupation, the management of the Israel Broadcasting Authority has instructed that its broadcasters replace the term "settlers" with the expression "residents of Netzarim," etc. While the Palestinians look for a new leader to undertake reforms in "Judea and Samaria," Sharon and Ben-Eliezer will continue putting together governments without Haredim and conducting a peace process without Arabs.