The death of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on March 9 brought back memories of high hopes for Middle East peace. This former guerrilla turned peacemaker was a key player in the historic events of the late 1970s--the Camp David summit and the shared Nobel Peace Prize (with Egypt's Anwar Sadat), as well as the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.
Begin's passing also recalled his determination to establish Israeli settlements on the West Bank's Occupied Territories, areas he called by their biblical names--Judea and Samaria. The day after his election as prime minister in May 1977, Begin visited one of the handful of settlements then in existence, Elon Moreh, to declare: "There will be many, many settlements in the coming weeks."
Fifteen years after the late prime minister's promise to implement the 1974 Gush Emunim plan for putting 100,000 Jewish settlers onto the West Bank, 91,000 Jews actually live there, with some 157,000 others in the rest of the territories annexed by Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War. In all, nearly one quarter of a million Israelis, 5 percent of the country's total population, reside in these settlements.
Today, using as justification the need to accommodate thousands of Jewish emigres from what was the Soviet Union, the Israeli government continues building settlements in the Occupied Territories. Most observers believe this threatens the peace process currently under way between Israel and its Arab neighbors, serves as a continued irritant for U.S. relations with Israel, and may delay to the point of no return any solution regarding a Palestinian homeland.