(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Four cabinet ministers pressed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday to stand firm against US pressure to freeze settlement activity, and urged him to continue to build in Judea and Samaria.
Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon and Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, both from the Likud, even went as far as to advise Netanyahu to ignore Israel's previous commitment to the United States to remove 26 unauthorized outposts and said that some of those, as well as many of the other 79 could and should be legalized.
Their statements put them at odds with the Prime Minister's Office and the Defense Ministry, which said that when it came to the outposts, the law would be enforced.
"Everything should be on the table and everything should be checked," Edelstein told The Jerusalem Post, as he explained that the legal status of all the outposts had to be reexamined.
Ya'alon said the term "illegal outpost" was an incorrect and inaccurate legal description.
The two men spoke during a tour of outposts organized by the Samaria Regional Council. They were joined in the visit by Shas chairman Eli Yishai and Habayit Hayehudi head Daniel Herschkowitz.
As he sat in the Havat Gilad outpost, one of the 26 Israel had promised the US it would remove, Ya'alon said that many of the people who had built the outposts had done so with initial permission of the Defense Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office.
In addition, he said, they had the support of other government offices, which had provided financial support. They had even been given mortgages for their homes, Ya'alon said.
He took issue in particular with the language used by in recent petitions before the High Court of Justice, which he said mischaracterized the nature of the enterprise.
He said he had appealed to Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, asking that the language used to describe the hilltop communities be changed.
Ya'alon said both had told him they would weigh his request.
But sources close to Barak said that the outposts would be removed and the rule of law would be enforced.
The Prime Minister's Office said in response, "The subject of the outposts in Judea and Samaria is being dealt with jointly by the Defense Ministry."
It added that "government policy with regard to the outposts was based on an examination of all the relevant information." It said it would "enforce law in those places [outposts] where it had been broken."
But Yishai said during the tour: "The people of Israel should know that these settlements [outposts] are legal. If someone thinks otherwise and plans to evacuate them, it will have to be approved by the cabinet. You cannot just evacuate people from their homes without due process."
The ministers also called on Netanyahu to create a ministerial committee to deal with the issue of settlements.
Besides viewing outposts, the ministers also visited the site of the former Homesh settlement, one of four in Samaria that were destroyed during disengagement in August 2005. All 21 Gaza settlements were destroyed at the same time.
As they stood next to a water tower which had served the settlement and which now is used by the surrounding Palestinian villages, the ministers called to rebuild Homesh. It had been painted orange, the color of those who opposed disengagement.
"We have to weigh a return to Homesh," said Ya'alon.
Edelstein said the government should allow people to return and rebuild the community.
Leaving Homesh had been a mistake that had only led to terrorism and jihad, Ya'alon said.
"Anyone who thinks differently has their head buried in the sand," said Yishai.
The Palestinians are interested in destroying Israel, and their refusal to recognize the Jewish nature of the state spoke volumes about their true intentions, Yishai said. He urged Netanyahu not to repeat this mistake by making further concessions.
The ministers' outpost trip came as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made his first visit to Washington in five years. He is scheduled to meet Tuesday with US President Barack Obama where it is expected that he will reiterate his country's position in support of a settlement freeze.
Since taking office, Netanyahu has not approved a single new construction project, although he has allowed ongoing construction to continue.
But on Monday, as he stood on the Homesh hilltop, where thorns and weeds had grown over the foundations of the former Jewish homes, Edelstein said there had been no official decision from Netanyahu on the future of construction in Judea and Samaria.
"The prime minister has not given in [to Obama]," said Edelstein. He said he hoped Netanyahu would have the strength to stick with that stance when he spoke with the Americans.