outpost evacuation 298.
(photo credit: Jewish Community of Hebron [file])
An agreement with settlers that would resolve the issue of 24 unauthorized outposts by legalizing some and moving others to within accepted West Bank settlement blocs could be reached within a few weeks once Defense Minister Amir Peretz is out of office, Kadima MK Otniel Schneller told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend.
"If there is a new defense minister, it will likely take a few weeks to complete the negotiations," said Schneller, who acts as a liaison between settlers and the Prime Minister's Office. He added that hammering out the authorization would take more time.
Each side told the Post they blamed the other for the breakdown in communication that had brought talks on the outposts to a standstill.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office and the Defense Ministry blamed the settlers. Yishai Hollender, a spokesman for the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, said the settlers were willing to reach an agreement with the government, but that so far it was the government and the Defense Ministry that had balked.
Council chairman Benzi Lieberman added that given Olmert's current lack of political power, there was little he could do to deal with the outposts.
Schneller said the government had the power to act, but that the problem was a policy dispute, with Peretz keen on evacuating the outposts and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert determined to do so only in agreement with the settlers.
Schneller said the prime minister understood that settlers needed to be treated respectfully and that they were not enemies of the state. He accused Peretz, in turn, of disliking the settlers and not caring whether he had to use force against them.
A Peretz spokesman denied the charges. He said the moment the prime minister decided on a course of action with respect to the outposts, Peretz would execute it. "We are waiting for the prime minister," said the spokesman. In the past, Peretz has accused Olmert of shying away from the matter.
But Schneller said that once Peretz leaves the Defense Ministry, the Prime Minister's Office hopes to hammer out a deal that would focus on 24 unauthorized outposts, whose removal the cabinet ordered in 2005. The government also promised the US that it would remove these 24 outposts, all of which were established after Ariel Sharon took office in 2001.
The US believes that the 50 outposts erected since March 2001 should be removed. There are some 105 unauthorized outposts in the West Bank.
Schneller said that in removing the 24 outposts, there would be no more need for forcible evacuations or demolitions such as those at the Amona outpost last year, when nine homes were razed by the government following violent clashes with the settlers and security forces.
"You cannot make peace with power," Schneller said.
He gave no specific details, but said the agreement would look to move some of the outposts to areas in the West Bank that would likely be retained by Israel in a final-status agreement. In other cases, where it was possible, attempts would be make to legalize some of the outposts, he said.
Such an agreement, Schneller said, would be in keeping with Israel's promise to the US to evacuate the outposts, even though the hilltop communities would remain within the West Bank.
The Americans have already accepted the idea that Israel is not withdrawing to the pre-1967 border, so they should accept this plan as well, he said.
Schneller based this assumption on the fact that President George W. Bush, in his 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon, said, "It is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."
Despite Schneller's claim, a source within the Prime Minister's Office said he had no knowledge of such a deal. He added that the government remained committed to its promise to the United States to remove the 24 outposts.
Diplomatic sources told the Post that the US's main concern was that Israel not take any steps to prejudice a final-status solution that would allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Within those parameters, it had asked Israel to remove the outposts but had not clarified the exact details regarding the move, the sources said.
Similarly, the US had said that Israel should not expand existing settlements but, again, had not provided details.
A spokesman for the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, Stewart Tuttle, said: "The United States has commitments from the government of Israel to remove illegal outposts and to stop settlement expansion. But it isn't our policy to debate in a public forum the definition of compliance."
Schneller's statement to the Post is the latest in a series of assertions government members have made in the past year that the outpost issue would soon be addressed.
Upon taking office in May, Peretz signed eviction notices for 12 outposts and stated that he would accelerate their removal, saying they were "disgracing Israel's image around the world." The outbreak of the Second Lebanon War last summer thwarted those plans, which were renewed in October and then dropped.
In hopes of forcing the government's hand, Peace Now has petitioned the High Court of Justice, asking that the state evacuate the Migron outpost and demolish permanent structures in the Hayovel and Haresha outposts. The group is also looking into renewing its petition for the removal of six other outposts: Ramat Gilad-Givat Hadegel; T-Junction-Givat Assaf; Ma'aleh Rehavam; Mitzpeh Lachish; Ali 762-Givat Haroeh (Epirion Hill); and Mitzpeh Yitzhar (Givat Yitzhar).
Peace Now director-general Yariv Oppenheimer said he did not approve of an overall deal that would legalize some outposts and move others to areas within the settlement blocs that Israel wants to retain. He said that such a move would give a "kosher stamp" to an enterprise in which people had broken the law.
Cameron Brown, deputy director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, said that moving the outposts within the West Bank would be "roundly condemned by everyone outside of Israel."
"First of all, we often forget, no one thinks the settlement enterprise is legal," he added. "We are the only ones that hold that opinion. The Americans have said they are against anything that would predetermine a final-status negotiation and this would predetermine that."
He noted that by the summer, the political situation in Israel would look very different. The Labor Party is holding a primary in May in which a new leader could be chosen to replace Peretz. Olmert's hold on power could also be severely affected by the release of the second report by the Winograd Committee investigating his conduct during the Second Lebanon War, said Brown.
At the end of the day, he said, it was more likely that Olmert was going to go than the outposts.