First, evacuate the outposts
The very existence of the outposts, as well as their continued growth, call the government's ability to carry out its diplomatic commitments into question.
Israeli leaders frequently cast doubt on the ability of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to implement any diplomatic agreement, due to his political weakness. But Israel also has a long-standing commitment - to evacuate illegal outposts in the West Bank - that it has evaded carrying out for years, each time on a different pretext. The upcoming peace conference in Washington provides an appropriate moment to put an end to this foot-dragging over the outposts and to prove that the Israeli government, headed by Ehud Olmert, is capable of fulfilling its obligations. A swift evacuation of outposts also would signal to both the United States and Saudi Arabia, which Olmert is hoping to draw into the diplomatic process, that Israel is serious, and is not just talking.
Yesterday, the ministerial committee on implementing Talia Sasson's report on the illegal outposts, which is chaired by Vice Premier Haim Ramon, met for the first time in about two years. The results were predictable. The ministers heard a report on the growth of the outposts, in defiance of the promises that each of the last two premiers made to the White House. Ramon asked the relevant professionals to propose new rules on planning and building in the settlements and to explain various gaps and contradictions in the data on the number of outposts. Minister Avigdor Lieberman utilized the discussion to remind his supporters that he represents the right wing in this government. And Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is responsible for evacuating the outposts, thus far has been prolonging the issue through discussions with the settlers on a voluntary evacuation - which, based on past experience, seem unlikely to produce results.
Olmert's predecessor Ariel Sharon promised the American administration that he would evacuate every outpost established during his term as prime minister. But the administration stopped pressuring Israel after the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, and the settlers have interpreted this as a license to continue expanding the outposts. The Sasson Report, which proposed a comprehensive policy for dealing with construction over the Green Line, was never implemented. Olmert began his term by destroying nine houses in the outpost of Amona, but was frightened by the violent pictures that evacuation produced. Since then, he has preferred to play for time. Now, the issue has arisen once again, due to a Peace Now petition to the High Court of Justice demanding the evacuation of Migron, built on private Palestinian land. The state put the court off with repeated postponements, but now it must submit an appropriate response. Meanwhile, U.S. President George Bush reiterated that Israel must evacuate the outposts, in his July 16 speech on the Middle East.
The very existence of the outposts, as well as their continued growth, call the government's ability to carry out its diplomatic commitments into question. The prime minister's attempts to reach an agreement of principles with Abbas will look like a sorry joke if Olmert does not want - or is not able - to evacuate so much as a single outpost. Olmert's view is that after the agreement of principles is reached, it should be implemented gradually, in keeping with the stages of the road map peace plan. Yet even the road map obligates Israel to evacuate the outposts during the very first stage. Why should Israeli citizens, or the international community, take the prime minister's diplomatic moves seriously as long as Olmert evades implementing even the very first step?