Prime Minister Ariel Sharon finally returned to "Sharon's Observation Point" in the tidy settlement of Beit Arieh on Tuesday.
A day after failing to punch through his ministerial appointments in the Knesset, Sharon doffed his suit and donned his trademark khaki jacket to tour the West Bank security fence, hoping to try his luck on the hills where he launched his political career.
It was the prime minister's first visit to the West Bank in nearly three months and coincides with Sharon's drive to determine the final borders of the state, said the prime minister's aides on the condition of anonymity.
Yet, whatever happens, the veteran politician told anxious leaders in Beit Arieh that this tidy settlement wouldn't be abandoned. Sharon's tour also included, Modi'in and the Jersualem-area town of Mevasseret Zion.
His stopover in Beit Arieh was the culmination of a number of meetings between Sharon and the leaders of that community who are concerned about new conventional wisdom that Sharon intends to cede to the Palestinians all Jewish communities east of the security barrier. In a brief meeting with local leaders in Beit Arieh and its neighbor Ofarim, he vowed that these tidy settlements "would always be part of Israel," according to local council head, Avi Naim.
Sharon's spokesman Asi Shariv, who shadowed his boss on the tour, said, "The prime minister was there to listen and that's mostly what he did."
But perhaps Sharon also has a soft-spot for this place. A little garden has been dedicated on the spot where he lugged countless congressmen and senators to show them what he called the unimpeachable, strategic significance of this spot.
With anti-disengagement protestors hounding him, Sharon has spent little time in the settlements in the past two years. Local residents accepted the presence of a man who never visited the Gaza settlements once he decided their fate as a good omen.
Theirs is a small tactical problem with big political implications, said some 20 locals who demonstrated more for the cameras than for the prime minister's convoy, which heedlessly sped by.
Locals here have accepted the construction of what they call the "separation fence" to their west, effectively putting Beit Arieh on the "Palestinian side" of the barrier, according to Ishai Haetzni, a community spokesman. They appealed to the Defense Ministry, which pledged to build a spur shooting off from the main fence and encompassing Beit Arieh.
"Only that spur will strangle us," said Haetzni. Another local activist, Shimon Cohen, produced an aerial map he said was borrowed from the Mukhtar of the neighboring village of Luban. "The Defense Ministry wouldn't give us a copy," said Cohen.
The map shows a narrow band of fence that runs just meters from the western edge of the settlement before looping back around to the main fence. "We'll be sitting ducks," say locals.
Above all, they demand that Beit Arieh remain within the future borders of the State of Israel. Sharon had once promised residents that the fence would circle around them, effectively scooping them into Israel. "But that was not the case," said Avinoam Magen, who commissioned an unscientific poll in the two communities showing that most would rather leave than be marooned on the Palestinian side.
Sharon's infamous statement that "Netzarim's fate is the same as that of Tel Aviv," instills little confidence in the post-disengagement era, said Magen.
Beit Arieh is just one of at least six secular Israeli settlements whose residents claim they are marooned on the "Palestinian side," or to the east of the security fence.
The light-hearted demonstration near the entrance to their community was perhaps an unwitting exposition of this settlement's bourgeois bona fides. Some of the men, waiting with signs like "Will you evacuate us also?" paced nervously in double-breasted suits while others pecked away on their Blackberry e-mail phones. One of the demonstrators even rolled up in an antique Rolls Royce.
Beit Arieh-Ofarim's Council head Naim bridles at the thought of calling this place a "settlement," which he claims carries negative connotations. Nine hundred-families strong, Beit Ariel "is a community, not a settlement.
"We never rebelled during the disengagement. We respect every democratic decision of the government," he added. That's the reason the government, "cannot leave us behind as a bargaining chip."
He plans to petition the High Court of Justice should the route of the "Beit Arieh Spur" not be changed to give the community some breathing space.
Asked why the like-minded secular settlements cut off from Israel proper by the fence haven't joined forces, one of the demonstrators explained that each settlement thinks its own situation and its own particular population is uniquely different from the other.
"It's divide and conquer," he said. "We are close to the Green Line and of vital importance to the state."
Adopted by Sharon in the early 1980s, this settlement boasts an unparalleled view of Israel's densely populated heartland. It is on the flight path - often problematically so - for flights heading towards Ben Gurion Airport from the East and sits on one of the largest aquifers between the Jordan and the sea.
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