(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
An initiative to encourage settlers to leave the West Bank voluntarily received a significant boost on Sunday when Defense Minister Ehud Barak broached the idea of paying settlers living beyond the security fence to leave their homes.
Barak said the Labor Party intended to bring to the cabinet a "voluntary evacuation" bill that would make it possible for settlers in communities beyond the fence to receive compensation now for leaving their homes.
The initiators of the bill, Labor MKs Ami Ayalon and Colette Avital and Meretz MK Avshalom Vilan, welcomed Barak's decision, and added that they hoped it would receive the backing of the Prime Minister's Office. Ayalon and Avital met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to lobby on behalf of the idea before he went to Annapolis.
Olmert has said consistently in recent weeks that it was clear to everyone that any agreement with the Palestinians would necessitate significant territorial concessions, though he has yet to spell out specifically what he has in mind.
The "compensation for evacuation" bill originated with the One House Movement, founded by Vilan, Avital, former Consul-general to New York Alon Pinkas, former police commander Alik Ron and former deputy defense minister Dalia Rabin.
"Since the peace process started back up, there has been more dialogue of putting One House on the agenda," Avital said. "This is not a left-wing step. This is a program that helps the first step of the road map along. Barak came back from Annapolis with an understanding that he needed to advance things on the ground."
Avital said One House hoped to give settlers the chance to leave their homes on their own terms. The One House program seeks to compensate the tens of thousands of settlers who live outside the route of the security barrier in the West Bank by offering them the real value for their homes. Many Gaza evacuees felt that they did not get a fair price for their property.
However, because the One House plan would offer compensation now, and the residents would have sufficient time to find other jobs and places of residence, it does not take into account loss of employment and the number of years of residency in drawing up the compensation figures.
Barak's seeming endorsement of the plan was slammed by the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, which issued a statement on Sunday saying Barak "doesn't understand that the residents of Judea and Samaria cannot be bribed to sell their principles and devotion to the land of Israel."
The statement suggested that Barak's time would be better spent worrying about Israel's real security concerns, such as the Iranian nuclear threat and the rockets launched from Gaza into Sderot and the western Negev.
A spokesman for the Gush Katif evacuees said Barak was again "running from his responsibilities," and "instead of trying to help solve the problems of the people who were expelled from Gush Katif via the evacuation compensation bill, who still haven't been given proper housing solutions, is instead trying to create more poverty and problems for additional evacuees."
MK Zvi Hendel (NU-NRP), who was evacuated from Gush Katif during the 2005 disengagement, said Barak should spend more time focusing on his duties as defense minister and less time plotting future evacuations. Hendel said Barak should transfer the One House bill to the people living in Sderot, whose homes have been subject to near-daily rocket attacks.
MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) said the initiative was both immoral and premature. This was the type of bill that should follow a governmental decision and not preempt it, he said.
Schneller lives in Ma'aleh Michmash, which is outside the current route of the security fence.
The government has not yet voted to withdraw from territory beyond the security fence or in fact from any land in the West Bank, he said, adding that passage of the bill would indicate that withdrawal had indeed been approved, since the government would not ask people to voluntarily leave areas it intended to keep.
On another settlement-related issue, Barak told Sunday's cabinet meeting that discussions were being held with the settlers on an agreement to dismantle illegal settlement outposts.
At the same time, he said, it was the government's obligation to implement its decision and enforce the law. Following Annapolis, and Israel's demand that the Palestinians implement their road map obligations, Israel will likely come under increasing pressure to move against the outposts, one of its commitments under the plan.
Despite claims of negotiations with the settlements, both Dani Dayan, who heads the Council of Jewish Communities, and Schneller said no such talks were taking place at this time.
The council broke off talks with Barak this fall once they understood that he had stopped issuing permits for new construction projects over the Green Line.
"There are no talks at the moment," Schneller said. "But the intent is to finish them."
Since Olmert took office in 2006, there have been talks with the settlers in hopes of concluding a deal whereby some outposts would be legalized while others would be moved to areas in the West Bank that Israel was likely to retain in a final status agreement.
Meanwhile, the government's Outpost Committee, headed by Vice Premier Haim Ramon (Kadima), which is examining the issue of construction in the territories, is expected to finish its work within a month.
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