Leading Article: Danger: Israeli colonialism at work

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Appropriately, it rained. Eretz Israel arrived yesterday at the foot of Jabal Abu Ghneim - Har Homa to its military landlords - with armour, helicopters and an honour guard for the bulldozers. Some honour: this building work is an act of colonialism by the Israeli government, timed to pay off the political debts of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. These flats do not need to be built. They do not need to be built on a Palestinian hillside. And they do not need to be built now.

If there is no violent outbreak this week, that will be a blessing, for the prospect for Middle East peace (defined minimally as the absence of bloodshed) is bleaker than for some time. It is indeed time for the friends of Israel to clarify the extent and the nature of our friendship. We say: for the existence of the Israeli state within secure boundaries and with a right to defend itself internally and externally against terrorism - yes. But for a policy of tinpot imperialism, contemptuous of legal process and blinkered in its refusal to see that the Palestinian national entity exists and will have to be recognised - no.

The more earth is moved and concrete laid, the greater the puzzle grows over the Netanyahu government's longer-run intentions. Evidently, he has no use for Yasser Arafat and the prospect of a Palestinian state that he embodies. Some of Netanyahu's coalition henchmen talk openly about assassinating the Palestinian leader. But what sort of calculation can lie behind that threat?

Construction work at Har Homa is only going ahead because Arafat is weak. He has no leverage over the Israeli government, but few other buttons to push. He is capable of inciting insurrection, but mayhem on the streets could be dangerous to his position and the rule of the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli government, at one and the same time, wants to hold Arafat responsible while denying him the supports that would make his responsibility operational. Does Netanyahu have some alternative Palestinian leader up his sleeve? Does he really think that anarchy - which would surely follow Arafat's disappearance - is going to make colonial government any easier?

Or does he, perhaps, have some unannounced model in which the Palestinians simply disappear? The saga of Jerusalem's municipal boundaries - to be chopped, changed and gerrymandered at whim - has lately shown how unwelcome the Netanyahu coalition finds the idea of assimilation. Too often it seems as if he and his even less attractive coalition partners dream of the West Bank, even those densely populated Arab suburbs of Old Jerusalem, as terra nullius, their inhabitants a tribe of ghosts to be wished away, decimated ... exterminated?

That is a loaded word. But suppose, for the sake of argument, the Palestinian population were to turn overnight into peace-loving and harmless folk: Israel would still be overturning their legal claims to place and property.

Because he has nowhere else to go, Arafat may be persuaded to swallow Har Homa and continue talking, fait accompli. During his visit last week, King Hussein hinted at trade-offs: an airport for Gaza, release of prisoners, better connections between the autonomously administered West Bank areas and Gaza. Formally, these are, of course, points contained within the existing Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement: from the Palestinian point of view, Israel is already committed, and cannot brandish them as a sweetener.

But, a brighter light in a dark landscape, King Hussein may have a continuing role to play as honest broker. In the aftermath of the revolting killing of Israeli girls in the Jordan Valley, his demeanour impressed all sides. So, too, did the Israeli response. Surely there was a lesson in those dealings after the deaths - that inter-state relationships can survive, perhaps be strengthened, by cool heads after the actions of the maddened and the maniac. Does not that, too, point towards the basic need for Israel to aid the creation of a Palestinian state?

Recently Arafat was in Washington DC. His visit came within days of Netanyahu's arrival in Moscow. How the world has turned since the days when Middle East relationships could be mapped on a Cold War grid. But the United States still stands alone as friend of the Israeli government, as it did when the United Nations voted on Har Homa. There are reasons for that kind of vote, above and beyond domestic US political affiliations ... it would be impermissibly naive to exonerate UN General Assembly discussions from the taint of hypocrisy and all manner of fellow travelling.

Non-action at the UN would matter a lot less if, in other forums, the United States were pushing the Netanyahu government in the right direction. But since the exertions of President Clinton's special envoy Dennis Ross, which led to the Israeli decision to stick with the withdrawal from the centre of Hebron, inertia seems to have set in.

It is nearly 11 months since Netanyahu took office. Like many passionate philo-Semites, this newspaper shuddered a little when he arrived. We fear we were right. He is embroiled in allegations of personal corruption; his political position often seems to consist of little more than continuous and unnecessary concessions to a right wing which needs him more than vice versa. He hangs on. Now Israel's friends must hope that the parliamentary hold of the coalition weakens further, and in subsequent elections Israeli voters are given the chance to think again. A national coalition involving Labour would necessarily seek to revive the pathway opened by the Oslo Accords, based on withdrawal from the West Bank. This commitment leads towards a safer future. The construction work at Har Homa destroys it.