As the Israeli assault on Gaza unfolds, and we receive new information about the death toll and new predictions about the prospects for any peace settlement, I wanted to refocus back on the essential issue that is still with us and will continue to be with us after this blow up fades into memory like the Second Lebanon War, Jenin, and the terrorist attacks and back and forths of the 1990s. Since the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process began going on twenty years ago, Israeli settlements in the West Bank have continued to expand every year. The settler population was 130,000 in 1995 and had grown to 270,000 by 2007 — through a mix of natural increase and immigration. The numbers have continued to increase right through the Olmert government, which I think really wanted to get about the business of uprooting settlements and solving the core issues. But he wasn’t willing or able to do it. Whatever you can say about Palestinian terror attacks or missiles into Southern Israel and whatever you can say Israeli incursions and aerial attacks, the situation is insoluble without dismantling those settlements. And that is why Hamas, as much as it thrives on war and confrontation, is a distraction — for some an intentional one, for others unintentional — from this core point. That’s why I think Bernard Avishai is right in his post from last week. The settler issue is intractable without an outside hand.