Debate erupts as ministers discuss legal standards for construction in the West Bank.
By TOVAH LAZAROFF, JPOST STAFF
Tempers flared at the outset of the first meeting of the ministerial committee on unauthorized outposts in more than a year on Sunday, as an argument broke out between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman over who has the authority to determine when outposts should be evacuated.
According to Livni, the authority to determine evacuation dates was the prime minister's and the defense minister's alone. Lieberman disagreed, saying that it was the committee's responsibility to determine procedures relating to outpost dismantlement, including setting dates.
The dispute was ended when Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who chairs the outpost committee, stated his opinion on the matter.
"The committee will not delay the evacuation of the 26 illegal outposts that were established since 2001, when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was in office," Ramon said." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Barak, and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Ashkenazi are able to determine the date of the evacuations as they desire. They need to decide to take the outposts down without waiting for the work of this committee."
"The main goal of this committee is to set legal guidelines for construction in Judea and Samaria," Ramon added. "There is no connection between this and illegal outposts that were established in the past."
The committee hopes to conclude its work within three months, around the time of the international meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict scheduled to be held in Washington in November, and to use those standards to evaluate the legality of the 105 unauthorized outposts in the West Bank. Some of the outposts may be deemed legal under the new guidelines.
The move comes amid reports that Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, in their ongoing meetings, have put Israel's final borders, Palestinian refugees and sovereignty over Jerusalem on the table as they debate the principles of a Palestinian state.
The need to clarify legal guidelines for construction in Judea and Samaria was first put forward by attorney Talia Sasson in her 2005 report on the unauthorized outposts.
Sasson will be at today's meeting along with senior representatives from the Prime Minister's Office and the Defense and Justice ministries, according to Ramon's office.
Ramon led the committee until he resigned as justice minister in August 2006. He was reappointed to head the panel two months ago. In his absence, the committee did not meet.
Ramon said in a statement that in the 40 years since the Six Day War, no government had ever set clear guidelines for construction in Judea and Samaria.
He added that the work of the committee would allow the government to determine which of the outposts are legal and which are not.
Settlers welcomed the news of the committee's meeting even as Peace Now attacked the decision.
"We are quite optimistic about the outcome of the committee," said Dani Dayan, who chairs the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.
In the absence of clear construction guidelines, the government had not enabled development in Judea and Samaria, said Dayan.
Dayan said he hoped that such guidelines would allow building to match the pace of population growth.
Peace Now director-general Yariv Oppenheimer attacked the panel for looking at the issue of legalizing construction in the West Bank at a time when, in his view, Israel should be working on withdrawal. He said the committee had been specifically formed to look at dismantling outposts and not to explore legalizing them.
"We are deeply concerned by the fact that they are not talking about dismantling outposts, but are talking about legalizing outposts and making the life of the settlers even easier," said Oppenheimer.
"We still expect that Ramon and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak will not surrender to the pressure from settlers and will eventually dismantle the outposts and freeze settlement construction," said Oppenheimer.
He accused the committee of cheating both the Israeli public and the international community. If the panel continues on this track, Peace Now "will fight it legally and publicly," Oppenheimer said.
The Prime Minister's Office had no comment about the matter, except to say that it was being handled by Ramon.
On September 10, the state is expected to present the High Court of Justice a plan to deal with the 24 unauthorized outposts established after prime minister Ariel Sharon took office.
The cabinet has already approved their dismantlement and Israel has promised the US that it will take them down, but no action has been taken.
The High Court hearing comes as the result of a Peace Now petition that calls on the government to dismantle the Migron outpost.
Since Olmert took office, settlers, the cabinet and the Defense Ministry have held periodic meetings with an eye toward finding a solution to the outposts. Among the compromise positions offered to avoid violent confrontations between settlers and security forces is an agreement by which those outposts situated on privately owned Palestinian land would be moved to other places in the West Bank, on which construction can legally occur. In addition, the cabinet would work to legalize those outposts already situated in acceptable West Bank areas, particularly those Israel believes it is likely to retain in a final status agreement with the Palestinians.
Dayan and MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima), who are involved in the talks, said they were progressing, but would not give more concrete details.
Both men said they were concerned about reports from the Olmert and Abbas meetings about large-scale withdrawals. The Council began lobbying Knesset members on the issue last week.
"We are demanding information on what he [Olmert is offering] on refugees, borders and the Temple Mount," said Dayan.
Schneller said that he plans to spend this week examining the issue.
He said that should he discover that the Olmert was leaning toward a withdrawal to the pre-1967 border, he would work with the opposition to topple the government.
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