Settlers, government close to 'mini-deal'

Yesha Council head: Agreement to be implemented in coming weeks; bulldozers dismantle Esh Kodesh.

wallerstein face 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
wallerstein face 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Settlers and the Defense Ministry are on the brink of concluding a "mini-agreement" on West Bank outposts as the first phase of what would eventually be a larger deal, according to Dani Dayan, who heads the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. As a "confidence building measure" designed to prove that both sides can be trusted, the settlers and the Defense Ministry are looking to take a small step forward in which the council would agree to the removal of an outpost or a portion of one in exchange for the legalization of another outpost area, Dayan said. "The purpose from our side is to see if the government is able to deliver. We want to see if they want to give as well as demand," he said Dayan did not say exactly where the mini-agreement would be implemented, only that it would likely be implemented sometime in the coming weeks. "It's a very, very mini-agreement, it's more of an understanding than an agreement," Dayan told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday evening. He cautioned against reading too much into the recent progress in what has been close to a two-year process toward solving the issue of the 105 unauthorized outposts scattered across the West Bank. During that time settlers, the Defense Ministry and the government have discussed an agreement that would legalize some outposts that are on state land, where construction could be authorized, and move other outposts now on Palestinian-owned land to areas within existing settlement blocs where construction is authorized. MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima), who acts as a liaison between the government and settlers, told the Post he was aware of the mini-agreement, but could not provide any details. But in a sign of how far apart the sides truly are, a spokesman for Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Post he believed that an agreement would be concluded within the next few weeks with respect to the 24 outposts that were authorized for removal by the cabinet in March 2005. It was his understanding that any agreement between the government and the settlers was limited to these 24 outposts, most of which he said were illegal. Israel has promised the US that these unauthorized hilltop communities, which were built after prime minister Ariel Sharon took office in March 2001, would be taken down. But Dayan said that he and the council wanted to see an agreement that dealt with all 105 authorized outposts listed in a report completed by attorney Talia Sasson for the government, also in March 2005. Dayan said he understood that some of the outposts were legally problematic. "We would like to find the proper accommodations for those outposts," he said, adding that most of the outposts could be legalized. "Our purpose is to turn those outposts into full-fledged, legalized settlements," he said. "But we understand that right now it is impossible to reach that kind of an agreement." Still, Dayan added, communication has improved between settlers and the Defense Ministry. Talks broke down last spring and again in the fall, just when it appeared as if a deal was on the horizon, but they have picked up this winter. As a sign of the improved relationship between the settlers and the Defense Ministry, Dayan on Wednesday was able to prevent the removal of a water tower in the Ein Kodesh outpost, which was constructed in 2000, with a phone call to the ministry's settlements adviser Eitan Broshi, who has been handling the negotiations. On Wednesday morning, civil administration representatives had gone to the outpost to remove a caravan used for storage and the water tower. The move was stopped under orders from Broshi. The ministry said that it had reconsidered the wisdom of removing the settlers' water source. "When the time comes to evacuate [outposts], we'll evacuate," a Defense Ministry spokesman said. Dayan said he had reminded Broshi that removing the water tower would "shatter" the confidence-building measures that were being worked out between them. But the civil administration told the Post they only refrained from taking down the water tower after the settlers promised to do it themselves in the next few days. Even as the settlers and the Defense Ministry are looking toward an agreement, the Ministerial Committee on Unauthorized Outposts led by Vice Premier Haim Ramon is looking to set legal guidelines for construction in Judea and Samaria. As part of its work it is evaluating the legal status of the 105 outposts constructed over the past 12 years, some 50 of which were erected after March 2001. Initially it had looked to complete its task in November, but it has yet to finish its work.