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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said this week in a private meeting that his "convergence" plan for a major West Bank withdrawal will involve the removal of fewer than 70,000 settlers, the figure most widely quoted in the media. Other sources in Kadima, meanwhile, now say that the eventual number of settlers to be evacuated will be much lower than 70,000.
The total number of Israelis living in settlements to the east of the separation fence is some 70,000. This has therefore been widely assumed to be the number slated for withdrawal, since the convergence vision presented by Olmert before the elections included moving the settlers from areas beyond the fence into "settlement blocs" within the fence.
But Kadima members involved in the ongoing talks between Olmert and the settlers now say that 70,000 is "a media invention and the actual number will be much lower."
Former settler leaders Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun and MK Otniel Schneller, who joined Kadima before the elections, are studying ways to keep as many settlements as possible within the fence or subject to alternative security arrangements. Olmert does not intend to refer to a number in public so as not to be pinned down by a commitment to any side.
Members of Kadima involved in the talks are also claiming that the estimated price tag for convergence is much lower than the NIS 80 billion sum commonly mentioned, which is ten times what disengagement from Gaza cost. The lower estimate, they said, is not solely because of the smaller-than-anticipated number of settlers to be evacuated, but for the following reasons as well:
A different range of compensations was needed for the Gush Katif settlements, which included a large number of farms and other agricultural assets. There is little agriculture in the areas slated for withdrawal in the West Bank.
Convergence is planned to take place over a much longer time frame than the Gaza pullout and its cost will therefore be spread over four years, instead of coming from one year's budget as was the case with the Gaza disengagement. (It is not clear why this would affect the overall price-tag, however.)
The settlers who were evacuated during disengagement were moved to hotels or temporary Caravillas. Under the convergence plan, the intention is to avoid such costs by building permanent houses before the settlers are removed.
Schneller and his colleagues are also hoping that at least some of the settlements will moved by agreement, saving the costs of mobilizing tens of thousands of soldiers and policemen to enforce evacuation.