Poisoning the Autonomy Talks : Israeli settlers and Islamic militants create odd alliance for non-progress

The bitterest foes of the Israel-Palestinian peace process are Islamic militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who reject the very existence of Israel and, on the other side, those Israeli settlers who believe that the West Bank is theirs by right of historical inheritance, never to be given up.

Just as Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority must move vigorously to control Palestinian extremists who use violence in an effort to sabotage the agreement with Israel, so must Israel's government move forcefully to prevent zealous settlers from poisoning the autonomy talks by trying to extend the borders of their communities.

The agreement reached by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization was supposed to freeze settlement activity as part of the five-year move toward Palestinian self-government, with the future of the settlers themselves--there are about 100,000 on the West Bank--to be decided later. The Israeli army was also to pull back concurrent with the increased assumption of autonomy by the Palestinians. But for various reasons, including the security threat posed to the settlers by Palestinian extremists, the military presence has not been diminished. Meanwhile, new land seizures have taken place. "The feeling is we have to work very quickly," said a spokeswoman from Ariel, a large West Bank settlement. "We have to create irreversible facts on the ground."

Domestic politics may make it hard for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to intervene to halt this new land grab, but with the fate of the peace process perhaps in the balance, he has little choice. Washington, at least since the late 1970s, has been reluctant to prod Israel on the settlement question. The time has now come to make its views ever more clearly heard.

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