US terms ministerial outpost committee a positive step

Official to 'Post': Just the fact that people are addressing this is a positive thing.

illegal outpost 88 (photo credit: )
illegal outpost 88
(photo credit: )
The United States looked favorably at the revival of Israel's ministerial outpost committee, even though its members did not immediately order an evacuation when they met Sunday for the first time in over a year. "Just the fact that people are addressing this is a positive thing," a US official told The Jerusalem Post. While some had hoped to see swift and decisive action on the evacuation issue, the committee's chairman, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, clarified that the committee's primary goal was to set guidelines for legal construction in Judea and Samaria, something that has not happened in the last 40 years since Israel took over the West Bank after the Six Day War. "The main goal of this committee is to set legal guidelines for construction in Judea and Samaria," Ramon said. "There is no connection between that and a [evacuation date for] illegal outposts that were established in the past," he added. Ramon has set mid-November as the deadline for the committee to establish the rules for West Bank construction aimed to prevent further illegal building in the territories. That time frame coincides with the international summit on the Israel Palestinian conflict set for that same month. The new rules would be used to evaluate the legality of the 105 unauthorized outposts in a government approved report compiled by attorney Talia Sasson and accepted by the cabinet in March 2005. But Ramon argued that the committee's November time table should not stop Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak from making good on Israel's pledge to the US government to remove the outposts established after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office in March 2001. Olmert and Barak, along with IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Ashkenazi, can set an evacuation date now without waiting for the committee to finish its work, he said. "We have to do it. We have an obligation to the United States that we have to fulfill," Ramon told Channel 2 on Sunday. He warned that failure to act could give the US the impression that Israel was acting in bad faith. There were reasons such as disengagement that previously prevented the government from executing the 2005 cabinet decision to remove 24 outposts. Ramon said he was particularly upset to learn during the meeting that the outposts had grown in size in the last two years. He drew support in the committee meeting from Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (Kadima), who briefly sparred with Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Israel Beiteinu) on the matter. Lieberman, who is also a committee member, said that this group of ministers and not Olmert and or Barak, should have the final say on the outpost issue. He argued that no steps should be taken to evacuate the outposts until negotiations had been concluded between the government and the settlers. The goal of this committee should be to reach an agreement with the settlers and not create a new fight, along the lines of the violent confrontation that occurred when security forces demolished nine empty homes in the Amona outpost in 2006, Lieberman told the Post. "This is not the time for internal disagreements and struggles," said Lieberman. He accused those ministers who sought to force the issue of using the unauthorized outposts to further their own political gains. Furthermore, he warned the government is not prepared for a forced evacuation, which would involve depriving 7,000 people of their homes. "It is mission impossible," Lieberman said. He added that he did not believe that outposts established with a 'silent agreement' from the state could be considered illegal. "You must understand it is impossible to establish any outposts without some kind of state help," accused Lieberman. The construction of outposts involves placing caravans in Judea and Samaria, hooking them up to utilities such as electricity and water, to say nothing of the construction of roads, all of which can not be done solely by individuals, said Lieberman. Ramon was also attacked by settler activists groups, including Women in Green, who announced their intention this Succot holiday to establish five new outposts in Judea and Samaria. On the other side of the political spectrum, Peace Now took the opposite tact, voicing concern that the government was once again ducking the issue. "We do not like the music that we are hearing from Haim Ramon," said Peace Now executive director Yariv Oppenheimer. He said he was upset both with Ramon's decision to pass the issue of outpost evacuation back to Olmert and Barak and in his commitment to setting standards for legal West Bank construction. "The only positive thing is that the issue is on the agenda again," said Oppenheimer. He added that Peace Now intends to turn to the High Court of Justice in the next few weeks to renew its calls for the state to evacuate six outposts for which there were already outstanding demolition orders. Peace Now already has a petition before the High Court regarding the Migron outpost, and a September 10th hearing is scheduled, at which the state must present a plan to evacuate those outposts constructed after March 2001. While the initial cabinet decision speaks of 24 outposts (as does the Sasson report), government officials have been using the number 26 in regard to evacuation plans. Overall the issue of a discrepancy in numbers arose between the Defense Ministry and Sasson over the tally of unauthorized outposts. Defense officials argued that there were only 89 such illegal sites and argued that Sasson had incorrectly labeled new neighborhoods in legal settlements as outposts in her report. Sasson told The Jerusalem Post, that she stood by her numbers but had planned to meet with Defense officials to clarify the matter. In addition, for the committee's next meeting in October Ramon has asked all the governmental experts involved to provide him with information on construction in Judea and Samaria. US officials, meanwhile, said the fact Israel is addressing the issue is "a positive thing" that could improve the atmosphere with the Palestinians. The official said the US constantly brings up in its discussions with Israel the need to remove the outposts and end settlement expansion, but didn't know of any specific or extraordinary request registered by the US in recent days. US President George W. Bush spelled out the US policy on the matter during his July 16 speech on the Middle East, saying "unauthorized outposts should be removed and settlement expansion ended." The US has consistently resisted attempts to get it to define exactly what it means by the word "expansion." Israel's interpretation of the term "no settlement expansion" over the last few years has been that America would turn a blind eye to construction in the major settlement blocks inside the construction line of settlements, but not expansion of these settlements outward, beyond the existing construction line. According to one US official, "Obviously, from our perspective we have always said that if you want to reach a two state solution, you have to deal with the settlements - remove the outposts and stop expanding - something that will contribute in a positive way to the atmosphere between the Israelis and Palestinians." The official said that the US was not involved in the decision to convene the interministerial meeting now. "We are not involved in the committee," the official said, "it is an Israeli matter."