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Peace Process Problem

Israel is reportedly about to announce agreement to the American plan for a further withdrawal of its forces from the West Bank. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have sat down again. The UN General Assembly has voted to upgrade Palestinian representation in the world body.

Out of context, each of these items could sound positive. In fact, they're all parts of an extremely volatile situation. The Oslo peace process, now in its fifth and possibly final year, hangs by a thread.

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The "thread," and it has some durability, is the inherent interest of both sides in arriving at a workable peace. The thing most insistently fraying that thread is Israel's longstanding policy of building and expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

The settlements have always been a crucial, if little dwelt-on, part of the context for Oslo. The peace plan never promised their removal, but the clear commitment to Oslo by the previous Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres made the problem posed by the settlements less daunting. Those leaders perceived that Israel's long-term security couldn't be held hostage to securing the future of every single settlement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's oft-stated skepticism about the peace process, if not outright antagonism, makes the settlements problem appear nearly intractable.

The long-delayed withdrawal agreement will be shaped by Netanyahu's determination to keep the security threat to isolated settlements as slight as possible. But there's simply no way of exiting from 13 percent, or even 10 percent, of currently occupied West Bank land without cutting off some of the 150 settlements there. And if this current agreement is so agonizing, what about the final withdrawal called for by Oslo? That would supposedly put at least half the West Bank under Palestinian control.

Palestinian negotiators have resumed talks with Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, but there's little prospect they will sort this out on their own. The presence of Israeli soldiers throughout Palestinian lands makes security cooperation between the two sides a must. That likely requires further US nudging.

Faced with Netanyahu's icy lack of enthusiasm for Oslo and the numbing reality of expanding settlements, Palestinian leaders seize what opportunities they have to affirm the goal of independence. Hence the UN move, which was denounced by the US and by Israel but supported by nearly every other member nation. A bigger move could come next May, when Oslo runs out and Yasser Arafat follows through on his promise to declare a Palestinian state.

That would be a sad finale for Oslo. The path laid out by this visionary plan demands constant bargaining by the principals, diligent mediation by the US, and a realization by both sides that neither side will win all it wants.

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The Israeli settlements have always been a crucial, part of the context for Oslo.

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