Israel won't honor outpost pledge

Legal status, rather than promises to US, will determine their fate.

April 28, 2010 04:49
Settlers rebuild the Migron illegal outpost in the

Migron settler kid 311. (photo credit: AP)


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Despite a 2002 road map commitment and years of pledges by successive prime ministers including Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel has no intention in the foreseeable future of dismantling any of 23 unauthorized West Bank outposts built after March 2001, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

In part, this is because the promise to dismantle the outposts was made in the framework of wider understandings with the Bush administration that provided for continued home-building at settlements Israel is likely to retain under a permanent accord with the Palestinians. Since, under the Obama administration, those wider understandings gave way to a demand, accepted by Netanyahu in November, for a moratorium on all new home-building throughout the settlements, the Post was told by one senior official, Israel no longer regards itself as having to go through with the outpost demolitions on the basis of that pledge to the US.

The official’s comments confirm a remark made to the Post during an Independence Day interview with Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Ya’alon recalled that Netanyahu, soon after becoming prime minister, reiterated the promise previously made by prime ministers Sharon and Olmert to demolish the 23 hilltop communities, which are peppered all over the West Bank.

"He [Netanyahu] said we accept our commitment regarding dismantling 23 outposts that were defined by the Sharon government as illegal,” said Ya’alon.

But that changed, Ya’alon said, after a dispute broke out with the Obama administration regarding the significance and validity of Sharon’s understandings with the Bush administration about settlement growth.

“He [Netanyahu] accepted that [commitment to demolish the outposts], until it became clear that the US administration does not accept the commitments of the previous administrations.”

A second official, responding to the Ya’alon comment, said the minister was “expressing his own opinion,” but did not deny that the pledge to dismantle the outposts had been superseded in the wake of the wider dispute on settlement growth.

Likud Minister Yuli Edelstein added on Tuesday that the issue of which – if any –  outposts would be razed would now be determined on the basis of the legal status of the land in each specific case, and the completion of all the necessary legal procedures, not on the basis of Israel’s pledge to the US.

Added Edelstein, the minister of information and Diaspora affairs: “There were all kinds of understandings that the other side [the US] no longer views as valuable. As a result we do not have to blindly fulfill everything. There are legal procedures in this country and we have to follow them.”

A third government official explained that Israel had three choices regarding the outposts: dismantle them right away, legalize them retroactively, or, when challenged by left-wing groups over the issue in petitions to the High Court of Justice, “buy time” by taking steps to assess their status. It is that third course that the state has been following when challenged in the courts, the official said.

The 23 outposts were all established during the Sharon prime ministership – hence his willingness, in discussions with the US, to offer the pledge to take them down. Only the status of the largest of the 23, Migron, home to 46 families in the Binyamin region, has been determined; because it is built on private Palestinian land, it is to be relocated to the nearby Adam settlement.

The status of some of the 80 other outposts, which were set up in the 1990s, is being challenged in the courts by left-wing groups as well.

Apart from the road map commitment regarding the 23, which are home to anywhere from one to a few dozen families, Netanyahu and his predecessors spoke of an imperative to dismantle them in order to honor the rule of law. Government officials this week acknowledged the continued importance of that imperative, but indicated that there were also issues of timing and sensitivity.

Given that there is currently no substantive political process with the Palestinians, and given the likely internal friction with the settler community that an effort to dismantle the outposts would provoke, one official said, “it doesn’t make a lot of sense” to focus on the issue now. Among other considerations, he added, such a move would be regarded as a unilateral concession to the Palestinians.

Officials said they could recall no cabinet discussion on the issue of the outposts being held in the past six to eight months.

Some sources suggested that the government would much rather deal with the entire issue of unauthorized outposts within the context of final-status negotiations. Some work has already been done, the Post has been told, with regard to establishing which of the 100 or so outposts are not built on private Palestinian land, and thus might ultimately be legalized retroactively.

Earlier this week, indeed, the state told the High Court that it was seeking to establish the status of the land on which the Derech Ha’avot outpost, in the Gush Etzion region, is built. It told the court that, if possible, it would look to legalize the 35 homes built there.

Last October, the Defense Ministry drew up a memo that advised deferring enforcement of evacuation orders against unauthorized outposts when cases against them were brought before the High Court.

“We should advise the court that because of diplomatic constraints and negotiations with the Americans, we are asking not to evacuate outposts at this time,” the document stated.

Since the 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction was imposed on November 26, the state has told the court in several cases that removal of these unauthorized communities was not a priority at this time because all its efforts have gone into enforcing the freeze.

The state went further this week in the case of Derech Ha’avot, by telling the High Court that it wanted to re-evaluate the legal status of land ownership there. The court was told that if the land belongs to the state and not to private Palestinians, then the Defense Ministry could look to authorize the construction.

Were Derech Ha’avot to be legalized, Israel would either be creating a new settlement or expanding the boundaries of the neighboring Elazar settlement to encompass it – in either case, departing from other commitments to the US.

Similarly, if a decision is taken to legalize the Givat Hayovel outpost, where the homes in which the widows of IDF majors Roi Klein and Eliraz Peretz are located, this would either represent the establishment of a new settlement or the expansion of neighboring Eli.

Neither Derech Ha’avot nor Givat Hayovel is among the 23 Sharon-era outposts. Derech Ha’avot was established in February 2001, a month before Sharon took office, and Givat Hayovel in 1998.

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