WHEN the Israeli cabinet meets today it will probably have in front of it an official report on illegal construction of settlements in the West Bank. The report was commissioned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon under pressure from the United States following allegations that many such settlements are still being established. It is believed that the report confirms that construction continues and that no progress has been made in demolishing the so-called “outposts” established since March 2001 when Mr Sharon came to power.

When US Senator Mitchell drew up a peace process for President Clinton he identified the “freezing” of settlements as a necessary first step on the Israeli side. The “road map” subsequently drawn up by the United States, European Union, Russia and United Nations (the “Quartet”) also gave priority to stopping settlement construction. However, the report to Mr Sharon reveals that state funds have been improperly diverted to settlement activity, on land not owned by the state or belonging to Palestinians. Another report, by Peace Now, an Israeli pressure group that monitors settlements, shows that work on the “outposts” which precede permanent settlements is continuing at 27 West Bank locations.

The reaction of the Israeli cabinet to such evidence will be extremely important for the future of the imminent negotiations between Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government. A great deal is heard of the actions required of the Palestinians to move the peace process forward but it is also necessary that Israel should respond in the same spirit. The West Bank settlements are a major obstacle to any lasting agreement and evidence that construction continues unabated will make matters even worse.


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