Talia Sasson's report on the outposts provided some stunning descriptions of Israel's culture of government, in which the political echelon "doesn't know" what is going on, and vigorous officials conduct an independent policy in opposition to the conventional view of civil servants as lazy bureaucrats. But despite the lawyer's sharp language, the report has no political significance.
The American government extracted from Ariel Sharon a commitment to remove the outposts that were established during his term in office, as well as a freeze on settlement construction. The prime minister insists he is not responsible for those outposts that went up in the days of his predecessors, that he did not take care of them and does not plan to remove them. The Americans accepted that and made do with a promise for the evacuation of the outposts established after the "deciding date" in March 2001. Sharon evaded that too, each time with a new excuse.
Unlike Talia Sasson's report, the American demand for removal of the outposts was not out of concern for the rule of law in Israel. In American eyes, the entire settlement effort in the territories was stupid and wrong from the very first day. The administration wanted to guarantee Sharon would not swallow up the small land reserves of the future Palestinian state and looked for a "punishment" for Israel that would balance the demand of the Palestinians to fight terror.
Bush is a great believer in the Palestinian state. Karen Hughes, who was one of his closest advisors in the first term, writes in her book "Ten Minutes from Normal" about a fateful meeting in June 2002 in which Bush dictated to his people his vision for the Middle East. She quotes the president as saying, "I believe strongly that two states are crucial for Israel's survival - we have to lead on the issue."
Bush stuck to his guns, and since his reelection has only sharpened the message and called for Palestinian territorial contiguity in the West Bank. Law enforcement is based on strict rules. Statesmanship, on the other hand, relies on priorities. From the minute the Americans became convinced that Sharon truly intends to evacuate Gaza and the northern Samaria region, they left the outposts alone. The position taken by Sharon and Mofaz that the focus should be on the disengagement and not to waste energy on the secondary problem of the outposts was silently accepted by Washington, which ignored the Sasson report.
In the prime minister's bureau, they say that political advisor Shalom Turdjeman was flooded with phone calls after the Sasson report was handed in. "Has the prime minister gone crazy? Is he committing political suicide? What did he need this for now?" asked the foreign diplomats who want to make sure there is smooth sailing from here to the disengagement this summer and are much more interested in the budget passing.
They had good reason. The disengagement plan smashed the belief that Israeli settlements "would determine the border" and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. That might be true where there is a critical mass of thousands of housing units like Ma'aleh Adumim, but the small settlements change nothing. Like in Sinai, they won't be an "obstacle to peace" in the West Bank.
From the minute Sharon gave up the principle Yitzhak Rabin had followed, that the settlements aren't to be touched until the permanent agreement, the formal procedure of how they were established wasn't important anymore. What difference does it make if a settlement went up with approval from the ministerial committee or with a wink from a wily official?
Sharon did not examine the "legality" of the settlements he decided to evacuate from Gaza and northern Samaria. Political considerations decided the matter and will do so in the future. If Bush really means for the Palestinians to have territorial contiguity in the West Bank, the issue of the outposts and settlements will be resolved. What remains beyond the line will be evacuated, and those places that remain on the Israeli side will continue to exist. Nobody will be interested then in the enormous effort made by Talia Sasson to find out if the mobile homes went up according to an approved zoning law.
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