Analyze This: Barak's West Bank maneuvers

Defense minister prepares to take on the settlers.

Barak intense 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Barak intense 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Defense Minister Ehud Barak's sudden announcement this week that the Labor Party will propose a bill offering compensation for Israeli residents living in the West Bank outside the security fence, to relocate themselves within it, was a maneuver typical of those the former IDF chief of General Staff and legendary commando leader has brought to the political sphere. The battlefield in question is Barak's accelerating struggle with the settler leadership. As defense minister, he will have to shoulder the direct responsibility to fulfill the commitments Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made to Washington to halt construction in communities outside the big settlement blocs Israel is proposing to keep, and evacuate the dozens of unauthorized outposts in Judea and Samaria. At some point - and likely some point soon (probably after the arrival here of Gen. James Jones, who will monitor road map compliance for the White House) - Barak will have to give the orders to get the latter process under way. The results will not be pretty, even when viewed by those who support the move, and will surely test the bonds of the coalition, particularly those of Israel Beiteinu and Shas. Scenes of violent confrontations between settlers and soldiers will also do no favor for Barak's ambitions to return to the Prime Minister's Office. For those reasons, he has tried to keep the lines of communication open to the more moderate settler leadership, forging some kind of compromise even while trying to put a clampdown on construction in settlements beyond the security fence. In the run-up to Annapolis the lines of confrontation became more clearly drawn, and the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip has stopped its dialogue with the defense minister, while more hard-core activists are planning a campaign to establish new outposts over Hanukka. Given this set of circumstances, Barak's call for a compensation bill is a classic flanking move, at least in the public relations sphere. By proposing immediate financial relief for those Israelis living beyond the fence who want to relocate, he can appear compassionate for the concerns of some Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria, even while heading for violent confrontation with others. It's also a warning shot across the bow of the mainstream settler leadership, that if they won't talk with him, he'll find neighbors of theirs who will, by giving them an incentive to jump ship back across the fence. It's a clever move, but not fully thought out. Kadima MK Othniel Schneller, who himself lives beyond the fence in Ma'aleh Michmash, is absolutely right that it is illogical for such a bill to be introduced before the government - this one, or others that will follow - first decides exactly which areas it proposes to keep in a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. No one can dispute that the fence has increased risks and inconvenience for those Israelis living on its "wrong" side. Unfortunately, the only viable answer right now is for the IDF to do what it realistically can to protect them from terrorist attacks. By suggesting the fence as the dividing line for compensation, the government risks undercutting the whole legal foundation it has constructed for the barrier, both in the international law arena and our own High Court, that it is being built strictly as a security measure and not for political purposes. If this was indeed meant more as tactical move in his chess game with the settlers, it's unlikely to garner him much beside their scorn. If Barak is serious about the measure, it's likely part of a broader political strategy in line with recent reports that he may be looking for Labor to incorporate at least parts of Meretz in its fold prior to the next elections, offering voters a single clear alternative on the Zionist Left in a field split with a weak Kadima in the center and Likud as part of the fractured Right. Perhaps not coincidentally, Meretz MK Avshalom Vilan, one of the leaders of the One House group that has promoted paying compensation now for settlers living beyond the fence, is already being tipped as a possible defector to Labor. If Barak does have a grand strategic political plan, it will depend first on him getting through the next year in much better shape than his predecessor in office, Amir Peretz. He'll need to deal with much greater challenges, ranging from Palestinian terrorism, Hizbullah bluster, Syrian mischief and the looming Iranian threat. But he will also have to confront a settler community, and their supporters, determined not to surrender even one hilltop or surrender the right to claim new ones - and Barak won't be able to buy his way out of that challenge.