Frankly, I've never been big on the settlements...or at least most of the settlements. And, by the way, many of them were built by Labor government and perhaps the stupidest one of all, Elon Moreh, abutting the large Arab city of Nablus (where the descendants of the ancient Samaritans live), is the creation of that great peacenik Shimon Peres. Yes, the morally haughty, intellectually pretentious and politically meddling President of the State, by law a symbolic office, at most.
Some of the settlements are now a permanent fact, and they ought to be. They "correct" some of the precarious lines of the 1949 armistice negotiated -by the way, in "proximity talks"- with Jordan and Egypt which were the factual receivers of the "Arab state" envisioned in the 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine. Had the Arabs of Palestine then claimed a state, which was their right, or for 20 years after, they would not have had to fight the Jews. They would have had to fight their Arab "brothers" from Amman and Cairo who had no concern for Palestine, save as satrapy of their own.
Whatever has happened in the Land over the last 60 years is a result of the refusal by the Palestinian Arabs 1. to stand up against the Hashemites and the Nasserites and, then, 2. to negotiate seriously with the Jewish state. The longer the local Arabs remain stubborn in seeking symbolic victories the smaller Palestine will become.
The fact is that the "necessary" settlements have been, more or less, secured. President Bush and the Quartet have made this clear, and Israel will not permit the sober promise to be withdrawn. The real issue now is security, and President Obama has already through Dennis Ross and Daniel Shapiro, two of his top aides on the problem (and much more sensible than George Mitchell), made clear that the U.S. grasps fully the need for Israeli troops on the Jordan river either to keep the monarchy safe from delirious Palestine or Palestine safe from a revolt in the kingdom. In either case, neither of which is implausible, Israel would be imperiled.
More afflicting would be a routine of mines, missiles, rockets into the heartland of Israel which starts anywhere that any border of the West Bank -by then Palestine- would meet the Jewish state. There has been a tendency to pooh-pooh this likely agony. But please don't be fooled. This is the real tough question of the negotiations. This is question on which the Netanyahu government should focus. The settlements are by now only symbolic. The presence of the Israel Defense Forces is a matter of life and death.
An article in yesterday's Ha'aretz by Amir Oren raises an older issue that has been dormant for roughly three decades. It is titled "A sluggish brigade in Sinai" and subtitled "The Egyptian commitment to peace and to avoid bringing large armored, mechanized forces into Sinai has no real validity with Hamas ruling Gaza." That is, the Egyptian peace with Israel may just run out not because the two signatories want to break it but because local circumstances will make the treaty irrelevant.
The Middle East is packed with the military forces of states and organizations. They are all preparing to kill and prevent killing. Only one force, the size of a brigade, numbering 1,662 officers and soldiers, is there for a single practical purpose - wearily waiting for a man to die.
That's the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai (and in a narrow strip east of the Israel-Egypt border ), which is always headed by an American director general, today the retired ambassador David Satterfield. His commander is always non-American. This year the force's commander is a general from New Zealand, who replaced a general from Norway.
The force has been posted there for 28 years to supervise the security annex of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. The MFO is not overly occupied. It has three infantry battalions - from Fiji in the north; from Colombia in the center; and in Sharm el-Sheikh, preserving maritime freedom in the Straits of Tiran in the south, rotating reserve U.S. National Guard battalions, this year from Kansas.
Each side earmarks millions of dollars a year to maintain the force and other states contribute money, equipment and observers.
There is no disputing the importance of the peace between Israel and Egypt, even if part of the price is maintaining a superfluous buffer force. It's better than maintaining regular divisions or reaching a tense encounter between armies that could deteriorate to a confrontation. There is no guarantee the old hostility between Egypt and Israel will not flare up again.
But the circumstances surrounding deploying the force in 1982 have changed, almost unrecognizably. The Egyptian commitment to peace and to avoid bringing large armored, mechanized forces into Sinai has no real validity with Hamas ruling Gaza. After the IDF left Gaza and the settlements, the security annex was updated so Egypt could reinforce its border patrol units in Rafah. Since then, the Egyptians have been operating in this area according to their considerations, mostly at Israel's request and on the basis of provided intel.
Rafah's underground sieve, Hamas' import-export tunnel network, has not been blocked.
Today, Hamas does as it sees fit in Sinai, with the cooperation of local Bedouin, whom the Egyptians avoid confronting. Squads set out for Sinai from south Gaza with weapons and rockets and try to enter the Negev from the desert, to shell Eilat or attack Israelis on the coastal strip west of Taba.
Oren goes on to argue that the MFO is essentially useless as long as Hamas is operating in the Sanai desert. The only reason to keep the force, he argues, is to secure the peace during Egypt's transition to a new government. When the Egyptian government's crisis is over, Oren writes: "Israel should reexamine whether there is any point in maintaining, with Israeli and world contributions, a sluggish brigade like the 'Havatzelet' guard."