To no one's surprise, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, visiting Washington last week, demanded that Israel freeze all settlement construction. George W. Bush was in full agreement.
In a joint Rose Garden appearance following their hourlong Oval Office meeting, President Bush declared, "Israel must remove unauthorized outposts and stop settlement expansion," as called for in the peace plan.
Yet he has said that so many times that it's hard to tell whether he meant it, or was just trying to please his visitor. Being evenhanded, Bush also told Abbas that "the way forward is confronting the threat armed gangs present to creation of a democratic Palestine."
So far, Abbas has refused to do that, preferring to invite those groups into the political process. But that doesn't mean a settlement freeze should wait. It would be in Israel's best interest - economically, politically, militarily and diplomatically - to go forward now.
For Israel, that is. Not for Abbas or Bush.
Notwithstanding right-wing dreams, Israel will eventually leave nearly all of the West Bank and most settlements, but not most of the settlers. Anyone who doubts this need look no further than the path of the security fence that Israel's rushing to complete. The route was chosen because it enhances Israeli security, and - denials aside - that gives us a pretty good idea of about where the Sharon government expects the eventual Israeli-Palestinian border to be drawn.
It fences off approximately 93 percent of the West Bank, leaving the few major settlement blocs that are suburban bedroom communities on the Israeli side. The Bush administration has accepted the concept in principle, recognizing that the "new realities" that have evolved over 38 years will necessitate redrawing Israel's borders to include these mega-settlements inside the permanent lines.
Between now and then, billions of shekels will be spent on new housing, infrastructure, public services and security for hundreds of settlements that will cost Israeli taxpayers millions more to dismantle, as happened in Gaza. According to Peace Now, 4,207 apartments and homes for upward of 21,000 settlers were under construction in the West Bank this summer - more than double the Jewish settlers who left Gaza in August.
Ha'aretz reported that more than $10 billion was spent on settlements between 1967 and 2003. Add to that half a billion dollars a year to maintain 10,000 troops in the West Bank, which may have doubled since then because of the intifada. In some places, soldiers outnumber settlers; in Gaza, it took 20,000 of them to protect some 8,500 settlers.
Meanwhile, thousands of soldiers and reservists will be put at risk defending outposts and small communities slated for removal. How many will die between now and then?
And it's not only Israeli taxpayers footing the bill; American taxpayers are chipping in as well. U.S. law does prohibit spending aid dollars beyond the green line, but cash is fungible, which means the dollars from Washington free up shekels to be spent on settlements.
Whether Israel withdraws from the West Bank unilaterally - as in Gaza - or as the result of a negotiated agreement will depend on the ability of Abbas and Palestinian moderates to establish a stable government, meet their security obligations, and win the confidence of Israeli and Palestinian public opinion.
The Israeli public has demonstrated a willingness to trade settlements for peace; it strongly backed the Gaza disengagement, and polling data shows it will support a construction freeze and a pullout from sections of the West Bank - if the government has the courage to act.
There is no longer a valid strategic argument for settlements as a first line of defense along Arab borders. Holding on to the West Bank and all of the settlements threatens Israel's survival as a Jewish and democratic state, as the Arab birthrate exceeds the Jewish one.
Israel gained diplomatic and political benefits from disengagement; it can be seen in openings in the Arab and Muslim world, at the United Nations and among its trading partners. It also contributed to derailing the divestment campaign by some American church groups.
Settlement is not about the right of Jews to live in the West Bank. It's about building a safe, secure and prosperous Jewish State of Israel.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.