(photo credit: www.jerusalemites.org)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plans for the division of the West Bank involve the dismantling and relocation of 20 to 30 settlements, and not the previously assumed evacuation of the vast majority of the settlements on the far side of the security barrier, the prime minister's adviser for settlements, Uzi Keren, has told The Jerusalem Post.
Speaking ahead of Olmert's meeting at the White House Tuesday with President George W. Bush, Keren, who stressed that he has been given "neither formal nor informal" specifics on the scope of the planned withdrawal, said that the aim was to create and bolster major settlement blocs "that we will defend with all our strength," while simultaneously ensuring contiguous territory for a viable Palestinian state. He added that he hoped that this could be achieved through dialogue with the Palestinians rather than unilaterally.
"I'm not sure that the line of the fence will be the line of the Palestinian state," said Keren in a lengthy interview at the Prime Minister's Office, adding that there were settlement blocs beyond the barrier route that would not be relinquished and for which other solutions would have to be found. The much-discussed figure of 70,000 settlers to be relocated was thus exaggerated, he said.
There is no definitive figure for the number of settlements that will be beyond the embrace of the security barrier when it is completed, but estimates are in the range of 55 or more. Olmert has indicated that his "convergence" or "realignment" vision would involve adjustments to the barrier route that would increase the proportion of West Bank territory retained by Israel, but Keren's comments suggest the retention of many more settlements than previously indicated.
For example, Keren said he did not envisage "the Beit El group" of settlements north of Jerusalem being relinquished. Asked whether this "Beit El group" included settlements further north such as Ofra and even Shilo, he said he did not see them being given up and that "there's room to maneuver."
By contrast, more isolated settlements such as Har Bracha, south of Nablus, would be "replicated" - required to relocate to within an existing settlement bloc or to sovereign Israel. From Har Bracha eastward to Karnei Shomron, which is inside a settlement bloc that is set to be retained, for instance, was a distance of only seven kilometers, he noted.
He estimated, moreover, that "a quarter of the 20 or 30 settlements" to be dismantled "will leave willingly." Arrangements for settlers who wished to evacuate voluntarily would start to take shape "in a short time." Some of them "are already begging to leave," he said.
He said residents of the northern Samaria settlements of Mevo Dotan and Hermesh "came to this office a few months ago," saying that they were "volunteering to leave."
The comments by Keren - whose role as prime ministerial adviser on settlement affairs involves a responsibility for Israeli population settlement in the Negev, Galilee and rest of the "periphery" as well as beyond the Green Line - confirm a report in last Friday's Post which quoted sources in Kadima branding the 70,000 figure an exaggeration. They come, also, as Olmert himself seems to be playing down the notion of a rapid and dramatic unilateral pullout, amid American and other international pressure on Israel to fully explore the potential for resumed talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Keren, who has held his position for the past five years, said he could not put a figure on the number of settlers who would be required to relocate. He said he believed they should be compensated "generously" and that the Gush Katif settlers received relatively generous financial compensation.
He also argued that such a pullout might be even more peaceful than the relatively smooth Gaza withdrawal. With respect to issues relating to employment and schools, it would be an improvement over the pullout in Gaza. "In the last process... we took an entire settlement bloc out of the [Gaza Strip] area. This time you won't take out an entire bloc," he explained. Since the settlements would be replicated a short distance from their original sites, children would continue to attend the same schools and adults continue to commute to the same jobs.
Asked whether the confrontation over the dismantling of Amona suggested a deeper potential for violence, he said: "Even though people believe that what happened in Amona is a sign of worse things to come, I believe it was unique. It was a payback for Gush Katif."
He added that he was currently drawing up a program for the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, Ra'anan Dinur, to tour relevant settlement areas in the West Bank shortly, to see the reality first-hand.