Conventional wisdom on the Middle East insists that two obstacles are delaying resumption of peace talks: Palestinian violence and Israeli settlement-building.
The Mitchell report, endorsed by Secretary of State Colin Powell, demands that the Palestinians stop shooting and bombing and that the Israelis stop building. To many observers, that formula seems both practical and fair. The only drawback is that it is based on a lie.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak proved that the settlements are among the least intractable of the bitter issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians. At Camp David last July, Barak offered to withdraw from about 90% of the territories, dismantle a majority of settlements and concentrate those remaining into three blocs. Six months later, during negotiations at Taba, Barak offered to withdraw from 95% of the territories and compensate the Palestinians for at least part of the remaining 5% with Israeli territory.
If settlements were the problem, why did the Palestinians reject the solution?
Astonishingly, the actual built areas of the settlements--as opposed to imaginary development lines on the map--occupy no more than 1.5% of the territories. Barak's former chief negotiator, Gilead Sher, notes that settlements weren't even among the five main issues preventing a deal. Instead, the real obstacles were the Temple Mount and Palestinian insistence on the return of Arab refugees not only to Palestine but also to Israel, threatening the Jewish state's continued viability.
Critics of settlement-building, including the Israeli left-wing movement, Peace Now, note that about 6,000 West Bank housing units, whose construction was begun under previous Israeli governments, are now at various stages of completion.
Yet, according to Peace Now's own "Settlement Watch," about 80% of those units are being built within the three settlement blocs that the Palestinians accepted at Camp David and Taba.
In a recent interview I conducted with Dennis Ross, the former Middle East negotiator acknowledged that construction within areas slated as future settlement blocs should now be considered legitimate, provided that building doesn't expand the borders of those blocs. So far, the Sharon government is adhering to that principle.
The final absurdity of exaggerating the centrality of settlements in the Middle East impasse is that those communities have never been less attractive destinations for Israelis, who are hardly rushing to move their families into territories that have become a war zone.
Many of the 6,000 units under construction are unlikely to be completed in the foreseeable future, and of those that will be finished, many will almost certainly remain empty.
If settlement-building is now concentrated in areas that the Palestinians themselves acknowledge will remain part of Israel in any future agreement, why the obsessive focus on settlements as an "obstacle to peace"?
Because, quite simply, the Palestinians need an excuse for having spurned the most realistic Middle East compromise since they rejected the U.N. partition plan in 1947. The nine-month Palestinian terror tantrum was initially blamed on Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount--which Palestinian militia leader Marwan Barghouti recently acknowledged was merely a pretext for pre-planned violence.
Now the Palestinians want the world to believe that the violence is a result of Palestinian frustration over settlements.
In fact, Palestinian leaders initiated the current violence to divert world attention from their own rejectionism. And as the report by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell proves, the tactic has been stunningly successful. Once again, the international community has signaled to Yasser Arafat that he won't be held accountable for aggression and that terrorism pays.
The argument that Arafat needs an Israeli concession to rein in the gunmen only encourages Palestinian rejectionism and ensures further Palestinian violence whenever disagreements arise during negotiations. Until the Palestinians understand that there is no reward for terrorism, they won't become responsible peace partners. And that is the ultimate tragedy of accepting the Palestinian lie that equates building apartments with blowing up teenagers in a nightclub.