The trend is clear. In a few weeks Israel will be asked to take the first steps in removing the outposts in the West Bank. The settlements are not necessarily topping the Obama administration’s agenda, but the Americans have been insistent enough that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to show a willingness to act on the ground.
Netanyahu’s stance before his party colleagues in the Knesset on Tuesday, where he suggested that the Iranian nuclear program is more important than the future of the outposts, marked the start of an effort to prepare the ground for a move.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak will visit Washington next week, with the outposts a main topic of discussion. Barak will promise his hosts that the government is dealing with the problem and will take action to remove the 22 outposts on the list the governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert promised to act on.
Barak will reiterate the argument that Israel owes the evacuation to itself, because it is a country where law and order mean something, and removing them is not only the result of U.S. pressure.
When he returns from the United States, Barak will hold his first working meetings with senior officials from the Public Security Ministry, Justice Ministry and police. He will prepare for the evacuation of the outposts.
Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that the army would prefer if the police and not soldiers bore the brunt of any evacuation. After the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces concluded that its involvement created friction and division in the ranks, especially among the religious officers and soldiers. Barak agrees with Ashkenazi on this point.
In the coming weeks, talks with settler leaders will continue in an effort to agree on a voluntary evacuation of the outposts. If this fails, evacuations using force will begin. But we must remember, Israeli governments made similar promises over the past six years. Except for minor spurts of energetic law enforcement (Amona in 2006, the house in Hebron last year) the settlers have held the upper hand for the most part.
While the government is expected to respond to U.S. pressure on the outposts, it seems Netanyahu and Barak are closer to the Yesha Council’s point of view when it comes to natural growth in the older settlements.
The two have repeated Israel’s claim that it is impossible to stop natural growth such as the building of another kindergarten or when someone puts up a new home next to his parents’ house.
Attorney Dov Weisglass, chief of staff for Sharon when he was prime minister, agreed with the Bush administration in 2003 on a compromise that Dan Meridor is now trying to revive. At the time, the United States and Israel agreed that the main problem for the Palestinians was the territory the settlements cover, which expand at the expense of nearby villages. So the real problem is not the size of the population of the settlements per se.
As such, they agreed that each settlement would have its territory delineated. In the isolated settlements the line was said to pass 50 meters from the homes at the furthest point from the center of the community, while in the settlement blocs, the approach would be more liberal. Weisglass also promised to the Americans that no profligate tax breaks and mortgages would be granted, thus not encouraging migration to the settlements.
A team was set up to delineate the lines, headed by then-U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer and a representative of the Defense Ministry, Brig. Gen. (res.) Baruch Spiegel. The plan was to visit every settlement to mark the lines and sign on an agreed map.
In practice, Sharon imposed strict controls on the team’s work, the settlers applied pressure of their own, and the entire project collapsed, without the lines ever being completed. The fact that during that time Sharon evacuated Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip lifted some of the Bush administration’s pressure on the issue of outposts and natural growth in settlements.
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