Despite declarations by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, there has been no progress toward dismantling outposts.
Since the beginning of the month, nearly 90 trailers were placed illegally in the West Bank. A Defense Ministry aerial survey found new mobile homes in illegal outposts such as Givat Assaf, near Beit El, and Amona, near Ofra. Some of the new mobile homes were also placed in veteran settlements.
The Yesha Council of settlements says the number is lower than the 200 stated by the Civil Administration and that most of the buildings spotted in the latest aerial survey were simply never identified before.
The red tape and foot dragging in dismantling outposts is creating a legal tangle as demolition orders expire, which will further delay the eventual resumption of evacuation procedures.
Peretz was accorded an extraordinary honor on Thursday when The New York Times devoted a front-page headline to his activities. The newspaper drew attention to Peretz' authorization to populate the abandoned outpost Maskiot in the Jordan Valley, and construct 30 new houses there for Gush Katif evacuees. The NYT expressed restrained astonishment at the move, which came just a few days after Olmert promised a gesture to the Palestinians. The paper noted this would be the first Jewish settlement to be built in the territories in the past 10 years, and that it comes with the authorization of a minister considered a political dove.
These flaws are also manifested in Israel's commitment to ease conditions for the Palestinians and in the government's approach to violations of the Gaza truce. The defense minister is finding it difficult to leave his mark on the system he heads. He is being manipulated by the army, which is not showing him much respect in return.
Immediately upon taking up his position this May, the defense minister said taking down the illegal outposts would be a central issue during his term. On his first visit to the Central Command, he promised to deal firmly with outpost inhabitants who attacked their Palestinian neighbors. In other declarations that month, he committed himself to re-examining the construction policy in the territories and ordered preparations for the first outpost evacuations. In June, the Nahal Brigade trained to evacuate settlers from Havat Maon. The abduction of Gilad Shalit at the end of June and the outbreak of the Lebanon war two weeks later shelved the plans and took the outposts off the agenda. Ever since the end of the war, there has been a building celebration in the West Bank. Civil Administration reports have been piling up on the minister's desk: The 10 mobile homes placed in June rose to about 50 in October and 90 this past month.
Ostensibly, the Israel Defense Forces are preparing for an evacuation. From time to time Peretz's bureau issues soothing releases to the left, stating the minister is determined to take down outposts. However, even Peretz knows this is no longer expected to happen. The prime minister told the Italian media two weeks ago that the political situation does not currently enable the evacuation of outposts.
The army has yet to present the minister with evacuation plans. When Peretz expresses a desire for progress, the IDF responds that conditions are not yet ripe. The excuses change: the scars of the war in the north, then the olive harvest and finally Hanukkah and Christmas.
Peretz, hoping to avoid a forced evacuation, tried to establish a secret channel with the settler leadership. Yesha heads Bentzi Lieberman, Pinhas Wallerstein and Ze'ev Hever showed up for some non-committal conversations at the Defense Ministry, but meanwhile the settlers leaked news of the channel's existence. Meanwhile, Peretz's bureau discovered late that the prime minister has a channel of his own with the Yesha Council. MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima), himself a settler, discussed an arrangement with Yesha heads whereby 26 outposts would become part of nearby settlements.
Wallerstein and Hever come to the Defense Ministry, gossip a bit with the officials, gather information about the army's intentions for them and refuse to commit to anything. The real negotiations are going on in Schneller's channel. Peretz's associates don't have the slightest clue about these negotiations, and Olmert's bureau is denying any connection.
Easements any minute
The defense establishment zigzagged this week regarding easing conditions in the territories. The "Peretz plan" for easements is in fact the Spiegel plan, and was formulated by a former aide to the defense minister, Brigadier general (Res.) Baruch Spiegel. The original document is dated November 29, 2005.
The plan calls for the dismantling of 49 dirt barriers, among them a few permanent roadblocks. It was translated into English and won enthusiasm from the American administration. Then, GOC Central Command Yair Naveh convinced Chief of Staff Dan Halutz to block it. As an alternative, Naveh proposed creating a separate road system for Palestinian traffic in the West Bank. The price is in dispute. Naveh is talking about approximately NIS 40 million. Defense Ministry sources are convinced his plan would cost at least NIS 150 million, making it unfeasible.
In the meantime, Peretz has replaced Shaul Mofaz as defense minister, and the whole matter has been neglected. In recent months, Peretz's political aide Hagai Alon - who replaces Spiegel as "assistant for matters concerning the Palestinian fabric of life" next week - has been trying to breathe life into the barrier plan. The army refused to cooperate, and even refused to send officers to meetings on the issue. Then, in the wake of the meeting between Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the urgent need for gestures cropped up, and the dust was shaken off the Spiegel plan.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh helped persuade Peretz to adopt the plan. Over the course of several meetings this Monday, Peretz accepted the plan, then accepted Naveh's reservations, and in the end, after a stormy discussion with Sneh, returned to his assistants' position. On Tuesday Olmert agreed with Peretz. The army was given a week to submit reservations. If there is no interference from the weather - or a suicide bomber - the barriers will begin disappearing next week. It is still but a drop in the bucket.
Yair Naveh, who this week determinedly and persuasively opposed Sneh, is a key figure in this story. The GOC is the father of the "separation" system, through which Palestinian movement in the West Bank has been severely limited over the past two years. In effect, Israel has cut off almost all movement between the northern, central and southern West Bank and between Samaria and the Jordan Valley. The move stemmed from an operational constraint: The IDF was having difficulty dealing with the Islamic Jihad network in Jenin and Tul Karm, which was sending suicide bombers across the Green Line.
In this context, the general provided the settlers with dozens of roads nearly devoid of Palestinian traffic. Taken along with about 600 barricades and dirt barriers scattered throughout the West Bank, very often without coordination among the various brigade sectors, insufferable restrictions on Palestinian civilians resulted. But Naveh says his primary and main responsibility is preventing the murder of Jews. Given the general consternation over the failure in Lebanon, the IDF perceives the Central Command as the only contractor of success. The terror threat in its sector is "contained" - that is to say, usually blocked before it reaches Tel Aviv - the system is functioning well, and it spares the chief of staff superfluous headaches.
The bottom line: As always, the field dictates the policy. Barricades may be taken down, but a new warning will quickly bring them back, and only the inhabitants of nearby Palestinian villages will know. The sergeants commanding the barriers, the brigade commanders and the major generals are more influential than any deputy minister or assistant sitting in Tel Aviv.