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The U.S. National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, is slated to arrive tomorrow for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. This is the third high-level visit to the region by an American official - following that of President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell - in less than four weeks. Ostensibly, this is encouraging evidence of the great attention the administration is devoting to settling the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. In fact, however, this is a disturbing sign of the fragility of the Aqaba process.

Based on declarations by Bush and administration spokesmen, it emerges that Washington does not have much faith in the intention of terror organizations to refrain from attacks. They are supposed to observe a cease-fire, as a first stage, and thereafter Hamas and the other organizations will be required to give up their arms so they will not be able to revert to their evil ways when they decide to put an end to the agreement.

Contacts among the organizations themselves and with the government of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) are being conducted in parallel to sporadic talks between the premier's representatives, headed by the PA minister in charge of security, Mohammed Dahlan, and Israeli military officials. In these talks, the Palestinians have been presenting various demands, which, if accepted, will make things difficult, but not impossible, for the Israel Defense Forces. After eliminating various obstacles from the path, the disagreement is now focused on the fate of the long, major road in the Gaza Strip labeled the Tancher route on IDF maps. Dahlan is demanding uninterrupted and unimpeded Palestinian traffic along this road. Israel is afraid that such traffic, which would run contrary to the military conception of separation and the prevention of friction between the populations, will tempt hostile elements to attack Jewish settlements adjacent to the road. The group at risk includes the settlement of Netzarim, which is somewhat distant from the road, but the main problem is the settlement of Kfar Darom.

The original sin was placing settlements in the midst of a dense Palestinian population that observes with loathing the precious land housing a few thousand people comfortably. Another sin was placing new settlements there after the 1982 evacuation of Yamit in the Sinai. Israel realized the futility of continuing this situation, and the government of Ehud Barak planned to evacuate all Gaza Strip settlements - Gush Katif in the south, the northern settlements near the area of Kibbutz Yad Mordecai and Kibbutz Zikkim, and the isolated settlements of Netzarim and Kfar Darom along the road. Had the Camp David summit culminated in success, the evacuation of all of these settlements, as well as many in the West Bank, would have been accomplished some time ago.

The Palestinian violence that started in September 2000 led to the postponement of the evacuation plan, and there were those who found it logical - even if contrary to Israel's basic interest - to refuse to evacuate settlements while terror prevails.

This has not been the situation during recent weeks. A diplomatic process welcomed by both sides finally has been launched but is having a hard time moving forward because it is stuck on the Tancher route near Kfar Darom. Although the road map does not demand it at this stage, Israel's welfare demands the evacuation of Kfar Darom in a unilateral move that the government is now free to carry out. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would be doing the right thing if he ordered the evacuation of the settlement, since it would be both a concrete expression of his intention to make painful concessions and a test of the seriousness of Dahlan and his colleagues.