Selling the Same Old Merchandise

After seeing how Israel changed major sections of their native territory while doubling the number of settlers, Palestinians are no longer meekly accepting Israel's behavior at the expense of their living space.

Due to the international community's frosty reaction to his convergence plan, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intends - according to media reports - to suggest to the Palestinians that they establish a state with temporary borders on 90 percent of the West Bank. Israel would retreat to the separation fence and the Jewish settlements to the east of the fence would be evacuated.

The construction of the fence is the most significant act carried out by Israel in the past decade, with respect to defining its link to the West Bank. Similarly, the planning, construction and location of the separation fence are clearly an unadulterated expression of Israel's unilateral policy. Thus, the fence project is a faithful successor to Israel's settlement activities in the West Bank, although the fence articulates a more sober-minded approach to the settlements' demographic and political implications.

The barrier in question creates a new reality in two different ways. Most of the West Bank's territory and population are located east of the fence. Yet most of the Israeli population residing to the east of the pre-1967 Green Line border (370,000 out of a total of 440,000, including the Israeli residents of East Jerusalem) is on the west side of the fence. Since it is safe to assume that the present route of the fence will continue to be the border between Israel and the West Bank in the foreseeable future, Israel will continue to hold on to several key parts of the West Bank, and that will mean compartmentalization of the entire area.

Over the past few years, two contradictory trends have been developing on the West Bank: On the one hand, construction work in the settlements and outposts to the east of the fence is continuing. The population of these settlements, for the most part religious Jews, is growing at a rapid pace. Construction work on several new bypass roads to the east of the fence was completed last year, and an additional one is currently being built. These facts reflect Israel's settlement policy, which has not substantially changed since the late 1970s.

On the other hand, the construction of the separation fence symbolizes a contrary trend: the downsizing of Israel's presence in the West Bank and its concentration in "settlement blocs." Today most construction work in the settlements - more than 3,000 housing units are earmarked for 15,000 to 20,000 new settlers - is being carried out to the west of the fence.

By definition, "temporary borders" must ultimately be finalized through negotiations. Any side seeking to engage in talks that will lead to productive results must embark on those negotiations in good faith and must avoid establishing irreversible faits accomplis. The Oslo Accord's main drawback was the fact that it enabled Israel to continue building settlements in the 1990s at an unprecedented pace while going through the motions of negotiating with the Palestinians.

Israel will certainly be unable to sell the Palestinians the same old moldy merchandise a second time. After seeing how Israel, utilizing the Oslo umbrella over the years, dramatically changed major sections of their native territory while doubling the number of settlers, the Palestinians are no longer prepared to meekly accept Israel's behavior, which is invariably at the expense of their living space. Nonetheless, the Israeli public must internalize the fact that there can be no interim agreement on 90-percent borders without a 100-percent freeze on settlement activity.

Dror Etkes is settlements watch director for Peace Now (Israel).