THE WEST BANK settlements of Ariel and Karnei Shomron are about to expand. In mid-December, Israel's Housing Ministry invited bids from contractors on lots for 137 new homes. The decision was made "with the knowledge of the prime minister," according to a source who spoke off the record because that's how sources tell the important parts of stories. No matter that the "road map," the 2003 document that remains the U.S. plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, explicitly states that Israel must freeze all settlement activity.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can feel fairly confident that the Bush administration won't make a fuss. The U.S. didn't do anything about another recent decision, by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, to plan 200 more homes in the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim. Nor has Washington pushed Sharon to take down "outposts" -- tiny West Bank settlements -- established since he became prime minister, though the road map requires him to do so.
The road map enshrines the principle that settlements make it more difficult to reach a negotiated peace, that they make Israeli withdrawal from occupied land far more costly -- politically and economically -- and entangle Israel in ruling a large Arab population, to its own detriment. That position has been a pillar of U.S. policy since 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai. And since then, the U.S. has been quite consistently, quite remarkably, ineffectual in doing anything to stop settlement. Meanwhile, although Israel has returned the Sinai and more recently pulled out of Gaza, the settler population in the West Bank has risen to a quarter of a million.
Back in September 1967, when the U.S. heard of Israeli approval for the first West Bank settlement, a State Department spokesman criticized the move as "inconsistent" with negotiating the territory's future. In diplo-speak, that was meant as a biting rebuke. Israel claimed the spot would be a military outpost, inherently temporary. By the next spring, with that cover story crumbling, the State Department ordered the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to remind Israeli officials of "our continuing opposition to any ... settlements" and of the U.S. view that they violated international law. Yet as if to mark it "not urgent," the message -- preserved in the U.S. National Archives -- was sent by mail, not cable. By the time it arrived, settlers had moved into the West Bank city of Hebron.
Why didn't Washington press the issue? One reason, as a senior American official explained later, was that the U.S. "had another problem on the other side of the globe," meaning Vietnam. A military quagmire has a way of sapping an administration's energy for any other foreign policy issues. Another reason, especially in the Nixon-Kissinger years, was that Washington subsumed the Israeli-Arab crisis to the Cold War. The Mideast's local peculiarities -- such as settlements and Palestinian nationalism -- got little attention in the grand vision of global conflict.
There was also a culture gap. In Washington, foreign policy hands focused on grand diplomatic initiatives. Messages to the Tel Aviv embassy reacting to the settlements were lost among the flood of cables on Arab-Israeli negotiating procedures. But for Israeli leaders, settlements fit a political tradition of quietly "creating facts," of faits accomplis that would determine future borders. Their real diplomatic statements were the ones they wrote on the landscape.
Kissinger's State Department showed its obtuseness to that tradition in a 1974 cable asking that Israel "turn off public comments on expanding settlements," which were hurting U.S.-Arab ties. Publicity, not the settlements themselves, were the diplomatic difficulty. (The cable's author also bemoaned Israel's "absence of press censorship" on nonmilitary matters.)
Years later, in the moment after the Cold War, George Bush the elder did face the issue, linking loan guarantees to Israel with a settlement freeze. Handled clumsily, the confrontation hurt Bush domestically. Afterward, Bill Clinton was content to let the Oslo process progress, again focusing on negotiations, while the number of West Bank settlers nearly doubled during his presidency.
Today, we're nearly back to square one. Now it's the Iraq quagmire that saps U.S. energies. The war on terror has replaced the Cold War as an organizing concept that exempts the administration from understanding local conflicts. Satisfied with Sharon's declared support of the road map, President Bush's team ignores settlement building -- though Sharon still expects that "creating facts" will determine how much of the West Bank stays in Israel's hands.
Yet there is also a critical difference. In Israel, public opinion has shifted. Only a shrinking minority on the hard right still wants to keep the whole West Bank. Increasingly, the center regards ruling the Palestinians as a dead end. Sharon claims to share that position. A U.S. call to stop settlement growth could be greeted as an appeal to common sense, even an act of American assistance. The question is whether anyone in Washington will seize the opportunity.