On the surface, it seems that the recent public quarrel between Israel and the Bush administration over Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank could have been put off until Israelis and Palestinians get around to negotiating permanent borders.
But underlying the exchanges are significant differences between Israel and the United States over what a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement might look like, and how to get there. These differences could come to the fore immediately after Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank this summer.
While the Americans stress the need for a "contiguous and viable" Palestinian state, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is concerned about retaining as many West Bank settlements as possible, consolidating Israel's hold over Jerusalem and ensuring Israeli security, even if this comes at the expense of the contiguity of Palestinian territory.
Where the Americans see the "road map" peace plan as the way toward a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, Sharon believes in the plan's interim phases as a way to stabilize the situation, but not in its prescription for quick movement to final peace talks.
Given the gaps between Israeli and Palestinian positions on the most contentious issues, Sharon doesn't believe a final peace agreement will be possible for quite some time. Until then, he believes, Israel should try to engineer the permanent borders it desires by creating facts on the ground.
Planned construction between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim, an area known to municipal planners as "E-1," is part of this concept.
Sharon is convinced that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will not be able to negotiate a final deal that includes agreement on the issues of refugees and Jerusalem, and that any attempt to do so will blow up the way the Camp David summit did five years ago.
Sharon therefore hopes that unilateral Israeli moves, like the disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank, are the best way to strengthen Israel's hold on the large West Bank settlement blocs that virtually every Israeli party agrees the Jewish state must retain under any peace deal.
The uproar last week over remarks attributed to Dan Kurtzer, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, highlighted the differences between Israel and the United States over the settlement clusters. Similarly, the dispute over E-1 construction plans underlined differences over Israeli building in existing settlements and over the significance of territorial contiguity in a future Palestinian state.
President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently used identical phrasing: "A state of scattered territories will not work," they declared.
Sharon, in contrast, believes that tunnels, bridges and bypass roads can connect Palestinian parts of the West Bank that don't have direct territorial contiguity.
The area known as E-1 stretches for about five miles east from Jerusalem to Ma'aleh Adumim, a West Bank bedroom community of 40,000 residents. Designated for settlement under the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's Labor government in 1994, the area was left undeveloped because of opposition from successive U.S. administrations.
If it is built up, E-1 would cut off Arab areas in eastern Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and drive a wedge between Palestinian towns and cities north and south of Jerusalem, for example between Bethlehem and Ramallah.
Palestinians and left-wing Israeli critics say the plan will leave the Palestinians with noncontiguous territory and will prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state, an argument the Bush administration tends to accept.
Meanwhile, rampant Palestinian building, spilling out of neighborhoods in the area and along the road from Jerusalem to Ma'aleh Adumim, is creating a competing set of facts on the ground. If Israel doesn't proceed immediately with plans to develop E-1, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned recently in the Jerusalem Post, the Palestinians will have separated Jerusalem from its Jewish hinterland.
The controversy was triggered by revelations last week that Israel plans to build 3,500 homes in Ma'aleh Adumim. Sharon was adamant: Israel, he said, intends to build in the settlements it hopes to retain and to route the West Bank security fence in such a way as to keep them on the Israeli side of the barrier.
The Kurtzer incident, coming days earlier, showed that when the crunch comes there could be highly significant differences between Israel and the United States on settlements.
In building support for his controversial Gaza withdrawal, Sharon has staked his political future on an April 2004 letter from President Bush backing border modifications based on "existing major Israeli population centers" in the West Bank.
Kurtzer was quoted erroneously last week in Yediot Achronot as having told Israeli Foreign Ministry cadets in February that there was no such American commitment. Setting the record straight, he told Israel's Channel 2 television, "The president's letter is clear and the commitment is solid. There are large Israeli population centers and we recognize that they will be part of Israel."
In fact, Bush's letter of April 2004 says, "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return [to the pre-1967 borders]."
Yet saying that the United States will take the population centers into account doesn't mean America will accept the settlement blocs Israel wants to hold.
In an upcoming April meeting at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, Sharon will seek a more specific understanding over which settlement blocs the United States believes Israel can retain, as well as American approval to build in them. For this he will have to promise the president an early delineation of the borders around existing settlements, beyond which no building will take place.
"Sharon still believes the bulldozer and the housing units will set the border, with America's support and backing," Ha'aretz newspaper's political analyst Aluf Benn wrote recently. "The upcoming meeting in Crawford is meant to grant him further strength."
That will present Bush with a dilemma: If he gives Sharon the public assurances he wants, he will damage Abbas' standing. If he doesn't back Sharon, he'll give the Israeli right ammunition against the prime minister and the Gaza withdrawal.
More importantly, once the disengagement is complete, the Americans will have a key role to play in what happens next.
In return for more specific American commitments, Bush could push Sharon to move rapidly toward a final peace deal. Without such commitments, Sharon will be less willing to move forward on the Palestinian track.
In both cases, the potential for strains in the Israel-U.S. relationship after disengagement is high.
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