Palestinians Wrong to Halt Peace Talks Over Settlements Issue

While Israel clings to terror issue, Palestinians use settlements as pretext to avoid negotiations.

The tables have turned. Up until several months ago, Israel could rely on the mantra of "stopping terrorism" as a defensive shield against reentering the peace process and withdrawing from the West Bank. Foreign leaders and representatives seeking to implement the road map were warmly welcomed by the Olmert administration and those preceding it with the following: "If the Palestinians stop terror, we'll uphold our end of the road map." This linkage was most important of all.

Then came Operation Cast Lead in Gaza last winter, turning it all upside down. For nearly six months now, Israel's insurance policy against furthering the peace process has been past its expiry date. Qassam rocket fire on Negev communities has almost completely stopped, suicide bombings in the West Bank have become rare, and bulldozer attacks in Jerusalem have been largely forgotten. The road map's first clause has been followed almost perfectly - Israel has even given the Palestinian Authority a vote of confidence by transferring additional West Bank cities over to the latter's security forces.

Now it is the Palestinians' turn to see their own pet clause in the road map implemented: the freezing of settlements. They now even have a U.S. president who supports them and is applying pressure on Israel - settlements will no longer stretch out in every direction as if made of rubber; the only construction that will take place will be the completion of projects already underway. At least this is how it looks on paper.

There is virtually no disagreement that the settlements are a stumbling block to forging an accord. However, it is not the continuation of construction that is the real problem, but the sheer number of buildings, people, roads and checkpoints already in existence. Close to 300,000 settlers in thousands of housing units will demand a solution if evacuated. At issue is not only the money or political strength necessary to evacuate them, but also whether the Palestinians will raise their voices about those settlers. Is the plan for maintaining the settlement blocs acceptable to them? What about a land swap? Will this 2 or 3 percent of the land really make a difference? Are the Palestinians willing to accept the road map Ehud Olmert presented, which according to some estimates offers them close to 99 percent of the West Bank's land?

Without clear and public explanations from the Palestinians on these questions we can presume that, more than they are interested in halting the settlements, they want to hear an Israeli declaration, in lucid Hebrew, that such a thing will come to pass. That is their insurance plan against the continuation of the peace process; just as Israel thought it could rely on the road map's terror clause, the Palestinians believe that in the Netanyahu era they can lean on the settlements clause. Because as long as Israel remains unready to stop construction, it is "guilty" of freezing the peace process.

One can't avoid suspecting that declarations are all that could be achieved - if anything - in an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue today, as each side is negotiating not with its enemy, but directly with the United States. As in squash, the score is tallied according to points won or lost against the wall, not against an opponent.

We understand that the Palestinians see the declaration of a settlement freeze as an important historic achievement, but the cessation of talks which they have declared is unacceptable. The primary excuse for the lull in talks - that there is no point in negotiating as long as there is no halt in settlement building - is not serious, just as Israel's pretext against holding negotiations as long as terror persists is not acceptable.

It seems one could agree with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that there is no point in formulating a ready-made agreement, one that would sit on the shelf as if awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. But even that is a mistaken claim. If the Palestinians can wring an agreement from Benjamin Netanyahu that would include a withdrawal from the isolated settlements to the major blocs, an agreed-on border, well-defined control of the holy sites and the rest of the "core issues," they will not only gain themselves a partner, they will practically hand Washington a working paper for a resolution. But all of this requires talks. And the Palestinians, who always dreamed of statehood and firm American support, now seem like a mountain climber halfway up the crag who has stopped to take in the view. Suddenly, there is time.

There is no logical explanation for Palestinian silence other than, perhaps, anxiety over withdrawing from the comfortable position of someone who has already achieved something and does not believe he will receive more through negotiations. It's true, the freezing of settlement building is already within reach - just a little stretch this way and that, and that's it. Anyway, how else will we pass the time until the end of U.S. President Barack Obama's tenure? With seven and a half years of backgammon?