Defense officials: Olmert delaying outpost plan

'We've presented plan to dismantle illegal West Bank outposts 3 times.'

Following Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's declaration on Sunday that illegal outposts in the West Bank were "a disgrace," senior defense officials close to Defense Minister Ehud Barak accused the prime minister of holding up a detailed plan to remove them. The plan has been presented to Olmert at least three times and could be ready for implementation within weeks if he approved it, the officials said. According to the proposal, a majority of the outposts would be evacuated while some - built on entirely Jewish-owned land - would be incorporated into existing settlements. "The plan is in its final stages and is almost finished," a senior defense official said. "The person who has been holding up the evacuations has been Olmert, who has yet to approve the plan." According to these officials, Barak had presented the plan to Olmert on three occasions in recent months, including before US President George W. Bush's visit to Israel last week and before the Annapolis peace summit in November. The defense official said the proposal - prepared by the Defense Ministry - was drafted after months of talks between Barak, his adviser on settler affairs Eitan Broshi and the settler leadership. Barak believed it was possible to reach a deal with the settlers within a matter of weeks, the official said. Olmert lashed out at the outposts on Sunday, telling a Kadima faction meeting it was a "disgrace" Israel hadn't acted to remove them. His remarks came four days after Bush publicly and bluntly told Olmert that the settlement outposts "ought to go." "The fact that the illegal outposts are still standing, even though the last two governments have decided to dismantle them, is a disgrace," Olmert said, adding that during his visit Bush questioned how Israel could complain that the Palestinians were violating their obligations under the road map, when it also was failing to meet its obligations. Barak's plan, the defense official said, was based on three principles: No more settlements or outposts would be established in the West Bank without government authorization; no outpost would be removed in exchange for the approval of another; and diplomatic or political pressure would not be the cause for outpost evacuation. "The outposts need to be removed because their establishment was against the law, and that will happen," another defense official said. "The question is how it will be done: by force or through dialogue." Olmert told the Kadima faction Israel could not say the road map was a strategic asset but at the same time fail to fulfill its obligations. The road map calls on Israel to dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001. Sources in the Prime Minister's Office said Olmert's words did not necessarily presage any immediate action, but rather expressed the "seriousness with which he sees the issue." Olmert, according to the sources, "wanted to make the point that both Israel and the Palestinians have obligations under the road map, and that it was irrational to expect that only the Palestinians had to fulfill their obligations." The prime minister has said repeatedly that any agreement hammered out with the Palestinians would only be implemented after the road map obligations were fulfilled, including the Palestinian obligation to act against terrorism and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in both the West Bank and Gaza. He told the cabinet that Bush accepted this position. Reactions to Olmert's comments on the outposts came quickly, with Peace Now saying in a statement that "Olmert should stop commentating, accept the responsibility and dismantle outposts." Meretz leadership hopeful MK Zehava Gal-On said: "The real disgrace is the prime minister's evasion of his responsibility to evacuate outposts." Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines also lashed out at Olmert. "There has never been a government that [so] methodically and consistently believes that words can replace actions," he said. "The disgrace is the helplessness and idleness displayed by Olmert on the issue of outpost evacuation. Olmert has turned the promises made by Israel into a joke." The Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip also responded to Olmert's words, saying in a statement that the outposts issue could be settled in discussions. The prime minister's conduct on the matter, it said, was "apparently intended to cause confrontation to divert public attention from the freeze in settlement construction."