In search of peace

JERUSALEM — Jerusalem -- DRIVING UP from the Jordan Valley to this ancient and sacred city, the visitor gone for four years is staggered by the changes. Jerusalem used to be the only great city on the top of the hills. Today, the hilltops surrounding it are topped by a glorious new "crown" of Israeli cities made of the golden stone of these valleys. They are beautiful, and they look very permanent.

And right there, you've got the problem.


Typically, Palestinians queried about the continuation of the building of the Jewish settlements -- many of them clearly on Arab land -- become visibly upset. It has become peace process-by complaint, a foreign sister to victimization in America -- and about as likable.

But the fact is that the Israeli settlements are to the peace process what terrorism is on the Palestinian side. The problem is that what you think you see these days is not always so.


When I put the question of settlements to Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who has spent a lifetime trying to make peace between the two peoples, he ran down the recent events.

"When we signed the Oslo accords, the administration [made] three decisions," he said, sitting in his office in the Knesset. "No new settlements -- and we've been strict on that. No enlargement of settlements, and no more governmental money in the settlements -- and we are strict about that!

"When we took over and discovered that Likud had issued 15,000 new permits [for building in the settlements], we checked carefully and discovered that 7,000 had already been started. We stopped 8,000."

Col. Uri Dromi, the spokesman for the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, delineated the situation further: "With all that Rabin has to do to keep the peace process going, you may ask, 'Why can't he stop the settlements?' Well, first, many Israelis don't agree with that, particularly those on the route to Jericho [the Jordan Valley]. These are not fanatics; they are not ideological -- many are from the Labor Party. For him to say to them, 'You can't build anything' -- it's very difficult.

"The beauty of the Oslo accords was that they were not specific enough to deal with each specific problem, but they were general enough to bring the two parties together after 100 years of fighting each other. Although we said we were going to freeze the settlements, it is not actually written. It is also in letters exchanged before Oslo. But if you go to the West Bank, you see the building going on. For the Palestinians, it's difficult to reconcile."

What's more, in this ever other-worldly city and land, where three of the great religions claim their miracles, the new settlements add an even more eerie touch. Because of the extraordinary building of modern roads everywhere in the last few years, settlers on the golden hills around Jerusalem can zip about as though in a private universe, never really having to see the Palestinian towns or Bedouin tents.

What is this whole settler problem really about? It is really about a race against time on the part of Messrs. Rabin and Peres. They have a narrow majority and may well lose the spring 1996 elections if Islamic terrorism continues. They have genuinely tried to stop the ideological Jewish settlements, which had been started under 15 years of the far right and anti-Arab Likud, often in the very midst of Arab areas.

But they have deliberately kept their ideas about what Israel's actual borders should eventually be to themselves. The philosophy has been that, as the step-by-step peace process with the Palestinians advances, many settlers would return to Israel itself and the problem would gradually work itself out.


Indeed, things were moving ahead. On Jan. 20, Prime Minister Rabin met with PLO chief Yasser Arafat at Erez Crossing on the Gaza Strip. Mr. Rabin said clearly that Israel would not approve any new settlements on the West Bank and that construction in existing Jewish communities there would be closely monitored. Prisoners were also to be released.

Two days later, two suicide bombers from Gaza sneaked into Israel and killed 21 young Israeli soldiers as they waited for a bus at Beit Lid junction.

Today, all bets are off on controlling the settlements, because that will only happen when the peace process is moving forward and thus expanding the hopes that will gradually wipe out the fears on both sides.

As one Western diplomat in Israel put it, correctly: "The whole basis of Oslo was that you have a partnership; you build new baselines and keep enlarging further. The intention of Oslo was to put off thorny issues. Then came Beit Lid, and the Cabinet felt it had to put off everything. Instead of little steps building confidence and keeping the baselines moving up, Beit Lid forced the baselines backward."

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.