For nearly two decades, the Palestinian Authority conducted peace talks with Israel while construction in the Jewish settlements was continuing. Every now and then the Palestinian leadership would complain about the construction, but it never made a big fuss about the issue. Nor had it threatened to suspend the peace process.

The Palestinian leaders even "forgot," when they signed the Oslo Accords with Israel in 1993, to demand that the agreement include an Israeli commitment to stop building in the settlements.

Palestinian leaders living in the West Bank can't say that they never saw the bulldozers working in the settlements.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas lives not far from a settlement near Ramallah. From his balcony, he saw how the Bet El settlement grew over the past two decades. It's impossible to travel throughout the West Bank without noticing the construction work in the settlements.

Abbas and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, talked and worked with Israel while the construction was continuing. Until two years ago, Abbas was negotiating with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, while the settlements were being expanded. Ironically, the Olmert government built more in the settlements than the "right-wing" government of Binyamin Netanyahu.

So how did the issue of the settlements become the "major obstacle to peace?"

Some Palestinians say that the settlements became a major issue only when the US Administration and other Western governments started demanding a freeze of settlement construction.

The Palestinian leaders can't afford a situation where Presidents Barack Obama and Nicola Sarkozy appear to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians, especially when it comes to the issue of settlements.

There's no ignoring the fact that the settlements are a problem for the Palestinians. But to say that the settlements are the major obstacle to peace is an exaggeration.

If the settlements were really the major obstacle to peace, how come peace did not prevail when Israel destroyed all the settlements in the Gaza Strip and evicted more than 8,000 Jews from there?

In Israel there is talk these days about establishing three major settlement blocs in the West Bank in any permanent deal with the Palestinians. Most Israelis know that many of the settlements will have to be dismantled and their residents relocated to the three big blocs: Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel.

This means that Israel wants to retain control over 10-15% of the West Bank after signing a peace treaty with the Palestinians. In such a case, the Palestinians should demand that Israel compensate them with the same amount of land, or even more from, from Israel proper. Some Israelis have already endorsed the idea, which they define as "land swap."

Since the West Bank is not Mecca or Medina, the Palestinians should have no problem making territorial concessions in this area. Peace can never be achieved unless both Israelis and Palestinians agree to territorial concessions. A Palestinian or Israeli who believes that he will get 100% is living in an illusion.

The major obstacle to peace is those who are trying to create instability and war in the Middle East. The major obstacle to peace is Iran and radical Muslims who want to destroy Israel, and not make peace with it. They are the biggest threat to peace now because they are also threatening to kill any moderate Arab or Muslim who seeks to make peace with Israel.

Related Topics:  Khaled Abu Toameh receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free gatestone institute mailing list

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