The Jordan Valley Regional Council will probably petition the High Court of Justice to legally force the government to make good on its promise to allow a new settlement in the Jordan Valley beyond the pre-1967 border. "We are checking the legal options," council head Dubi Tal told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday. He said he had been surprised to hear from the Defense Ministry at the end of last week that the approval he received last month to construct 30 homes for Gaza evacuees in the mostly undeveloped area of Maskiot had been rescinded. "He [Defense Minister Amir Peretz] might not have the authority to stop the project," said Tal.
Editorial: The Maskiot mess
The final authorization for the project given by the Defense Ministry in December marked the end of a 14-month process in which approvals were needed at six different stages, said Tal. He noted that the initial authorizations had come from former prime minister Ariel Sharon and former defense minister Shaul Mofaz.
Still, at the end of December the Post reported that the Defense Ministry was reconsidering the matter.
Tal said he had also personally appealed to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to intercede on the issue of Maskiot. Tal said that he called Olmert's office late in the week and spoke to his staff. He also spoke with Olmert in person on Tuesday when the prime minister went on a trip to inspect road blocs and checkpoints. "I asked him to advance the matter," said Tal.
Olmert made no promises in either direction, said Tal, even though the prime minister had expressed his support for the project at an earlier time. The Defense Ministry had also pledged its support for the project, said Tal, so he initially was not concerned when it had asked him to delay the start of construction almost immediately after it approved the project.
Tal said he was asked by the Defense Ministry to keep quiet for a few weeks until the international furor created by the Maskiot project died down. Now, Tal said, he understood that when it comes to Peretz, "a promise is not a promise."
Sources with the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip said they too were concerned that Peretz was unable to keep his word. The matter could impact the council's discussion with the government over a compromise with regard to the unauthorized outposts.
Defense officials told the Post that Peretz had rescinded his decision but he would reevaluate it at a later date after he has appointed a new chief of General Staff for the IDF and concluded other important matters.
In the Prime Minister's Office, officials said that the status of the issue remains what it was a few weeks ago when the defense minister - after Israel came under criticism from the United States and the European Union - said it was reviewing the situation. The review was continuing, the officials said, and in the meantime, no new construction would be allowed there.
When approval for construction in Maskiot was first granted, the State Department issued a harsh response, saying that the establishment of a new settlement "would violate Israel's obligation under the road map."
Peace Now spokesman Yariv Oppenheimer said on Saturday, "It is a shame that Israel paid a heavy price regarding the international community. We thought it was unwise to make this decision, but once it was made, we are pleased that it was going to be rescinded."
Tal has protested the characterization of Maskiot as a new settlement, since it was first used as an IDF Nahal base in 1982. According to the government, it was authorized for use as a settlement in 1986.
But since then there has been little construction on the site. To date there are less than a dozen small one-story buildings, which house a small pre-military religious school for some 50 young men. If the new construction were to move forward, it would bring a new community of families onto the site.
The Israeli government initially concurred with Tal's assessment that it was incorrect to refer to the construction of 30 homes as a "new settlement." In speaking to the Post last week, however, US Ambassador Richard Jones said that his government did consider the construction of homes for families on the Maskiot site as a "new settlement."
Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that in spite of this assessment, Olmert has not been under pressure from the US on this issue. The government is, however, in the process of evaluating the legality of construction within settlements, according to information obtained by the Post earlier this month.