RAMALLAH - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to approve new Jewish settlements on the eve of a possible settlement freeze is the latest round in a cycle that has been repeated so many times over the past 40 years that it would seem mundane if it were not so dangerous.
The cycle goes something like this: American or international pressure mounts on Israel to stop settlement activities in the occupied territories. Israeli settlers and their supporters then gather even more energy to expand onto more Palestinian land, build more exclusively Jewish settlements, and destroy more Arab homes before the so-called "freeze" comes into effect.
The peace process, not surprisingly, becomes a joke while this happens. Eventually, world pressure subsides and the freeze fails to materialize. In the end, more Jewish settlements appear. Indeed, the great paradox of this cycle is that more settlements are built during times of negotiations than during times of conflict.
This pattern can be traced to 1967. Israelis understand that the only reality in politics is the reality on the ground. So long as Israeli soldiers control the occupied territories, the idea of a settlement freeze will not take root. In fact, the demand for a settlement freeze is nothing more than a call to arms to a wide group of Israelis and their supporters to go and build on stolen Palestinian land.
When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was preparing for his historic visit to Jerusalem, a group of settlers created the settlement of Elon Moreh near Nablus, the most populated West Bank city. When former United States Secretary of State James Baker began his shuttle diplomacy for peace, his ultimately unsuccessful efforts actually resulted in more settlements, with a new one started just hours before he was due to arrive for talks.
Baker postponed his visit and later vented his frustrations to the US Senate Committee on Appropriations. He resented "being greeted" every time he came to the Middle East with yet "another settlement." Baker's efforts eventually led to the Madrid peace conference in 1991, but that, too, failed to resolve the conflict. And, while Palestinians and Israelis did reach a secret agreement a few years later that was publicly declared at a White House ceremony, construction of Jewish settlements didn't stop. In fact, since the 1993 Oslo Accords the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories has doubled.
The creation of new settlements has often been accompanied by hostile media reporting - even within Israel - as well as international condemnation, yet the settlement train has not stopped. It continued to race ahead even during the days when Israel's government rotated between Likud's Yitzhak Shamir and Labor's Shimon Peres between 1984 and 1990.
The Shamir government would be defeated at the polls, and the incoming Labor government would declare a freeze on all settlement construction, even on buildings that had already been started. But, despite the decrees, ways were found to continue building, to absorb new residents, and to increase the settler population.
For the US, the settlements have proven to be an equal-opportunity obstacle, obstructing both Republican and Democratic diplomacy. The Clinton administration attempted to put brakes on then-Prime Minister Netanyahu's efforts to construct a new settlement near Bethlehem. After a short hiatus, construction resumed. The Bush-Cheney Administration, the most pro-Israeli in memory, fared no better. Today, Har Homa, built on Jabal Abu Ghnaim with the aim of cutting off Bethlehem from Jerusalem, is home to 19,000 settlers.
This cycle has become so bizarre and confusing that Palestinians are not sure whether they should hope for continued tensions with Israel (which usually means no new settlements) or for continued negotiations (which usually provide cover for building settlements). On January 5, 2007, the day Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss a new round of talks, the Israeli Construction and Housing Ministry issued a tender for the construction of more units in Ma'ale Adumim, an exclusively Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Of course, whenever the Israelis defy the world over the settlements, as is now once again happening, US and other officials "denounce" and "regret" the decision. But, at the end of the day, despite these few statements and perhaps even a UN resolution of opposition, the pattern established over the past 40 years is clear: the decision stands.
Jeff Aronson, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, concludes that Israeli leaders will continue to be able to fool their American counterparts on this issue. Some Israeli right-wing leaders like Menachem Begin, Shamir, and Netanyahu trumpet their settlement achievements. Others, including Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert "talked left and built right."
Palestinians are caught in a Catch-22: if they insist on a settlement freeze, Israel preemptively begins to build new settlements. Unless and until Israel pays a heavy price for its illegal activities in the occupied territories, it is hard to imagine a successful peace process taking shape.