America's relationship with Israel is a bedrock of U.S. foreign policy. That is precisely why, on the issue of Israeli settlements, President Bush needs to read the riot act to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when they meet this week in Aqaba.
Americans understand that targeted killings and other security measures can be legitimate Israeli responses to terrorist attacks against civilians. But expanding settlements, which Sharon continues to energetically promote, is not a legitimate response to terrorism. Not only does settlement building put Israel's security at risk, but it harms American national security interests. Although the United States has long considered settlements illegal, Washington has rarely tried to stop them.
Under President Bill Clinton, the issue was deliberately overlooked. That was a mistake since settlements tore at the fabric of the Oslo process. Today, not only is settlement building a principal impediment to resuming peace talks, but the Bush administration's acquiescence to settlement expansion seriously undermines American interests in the region. Bush must tell Sharon that American diplomacy is at stake.
The United States is now pushing an international peace initiative (the road map) that calls for a settlement freeze and the dismantling of settler "outposts" erected in the last two years. While verifiable Palestinian action against terrorism is an immediate and unconditional necessity, this does not release Israel from its responsibilities.
An Israeli settlement freeze must be a sine qua non of any process. Moreover, dismantling the outposts should be the first step. Not only is it a matter of the rule of law in Israel, it is now a matter of trust between the United States and Israel.
What Bush should know when he reads Sharon the riot act is that Israelis are increasingly opposed to settlements and favor an end to the long-standing practice of funneling state funds toward this enterprise.
In recent days, Likud Minister Meir Sheetrit (a Sharon protégé) called the billions of dollars invested in settlements a waste. Sheetrit called for redirecting such investments "inward." But Israelis, absent U.S. prodding, have proved unable to seriously address the issue on their own.
First, settlements have a stranglehold over Israeli politics. Particularly today, with unremitting terrorist attacks against innocents, the Israeli body politic is unable to effectively voice its growing discontent over settlements.
There is a second problem - the Israeli government's dishonesty. Just look at what Zeev Schiff, Israel's most respected security analyst, had to say about settlements this month in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz: "When it comes to the (settlement) outposts, the issue has involved the spreading of one of the state of Israel's biggest lies - not only a lie that was told to the Americans but an ongoing lie that the Israeli public is being fed."
Schiff revealed that despite Israeli government claims that some settlement outposts were being dismantled, the number of outposts grew steadily during Sharon's tenure. Moreover, the government has deliberately skewed the numbers. Schiff cites information confirming that at least 90 outposts have been set up. "The only viable conclusion," says Schiff, "is that Washington must apply pressure to Israel for its own sake."
A concerted and sustained U.S. reproach could loosen the stranglehold and open a serious internal debate. The president needs to know that taking a tough line on settlements will have a tremendous effect on Israeli public discourse. Israelis are extremely sensitive to friction with Washington since they attach almost existential significance to the relationship. Just ask former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who was thrown out of office a decade ago for choosing settlements over peace and allowing relations with Washington to fray.
To be sure, Israeli settlements are not the cause of the Arab-Israeli or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Nor are they the sole reason for the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the resulting Palestinian uprising. But settlements do endanger Israel by diverting military resources from strategic needs, sapping scarce government funds and providing Palestinians and the larger Arab world with a legitimate focal point for animosity - thereby undermining U.S. security interests as well.
An American reproach does not require setting new conditions on American aid, as some liberals have advocated, and as the first President Bush tried. Rather, a sustained political intervention by the White House would do the trick. Israelis must know that there is a price for building more settlements, and the price is Washington's disfavor. It is a price Sharon will be unable to bear for long.
Further down the road (map), if security cooperation is restored and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resume, perhaps the United States could offer new aid packages or other incentives to induce Israel to go beyond dismantling outposts and freezing settlement expansion. The president demonstrated great political courage in going to war in Iraq.
Pressing Israel on the settlement issue entails far fewer political risks than sending 200,000 Americans to war in a far-off Arab country. It is critical for Bush to speak honestly with Sharon on this issue. If not, America's latest peace initiative - the road map - will quickly turn into a treadmill. Even worse, it may look like a blank check for Israel to continue expropriating Palestinian territory as part of a self-defeating endeavor.
Scott Lasensky is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.