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The cabinet yesterday approved a new map of Israel's national priority zones that confers this status on dozens of West Bank settlements.

"It's important to understand that we don't intend to seal the fate of settlements in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] except via a final-status arrangement," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the ministers.

The vote was 21-5, with the only opposition coming from the five Labor Party ministers.

The decision will award various economic benefits to 1.9 million residents of towns in the Galilee, the Negev, the Jezreel Valley and communities near the Gaza Strip, in addition to the settlements. The total budget for these benefits is around NIS 2 billion, which works out to about NIS 1,000 per person. Thus some NIS 110 million will be allocated to the 110,000 settlers included in the plan.

In most communities, the benefits will go toward housing, education, infrastructure, employment and cultural and sporting activities. However, yesterday's decision explicitly states that the freeze on construction in the settlements that the government approved two weeks ago takes precedence over the new national priority map - meaning that the settlements will get no benefits earmarked for housing. They will be restricted to using the extra money for education, employment and culture.

Due in part to pressure from Shas, the cabinet decided to add several Negev communities built for settlers evacuated from Gaza in 2005 to the map originally proposed by the Prime Minister's Office. In addition, it voted to set up a ministerial committee to consider extending the benefits to three other cities - Ashkelon, Modi'in Ilit and Ma'aleh Adumim.

Yesterday morning, it looked as if the cabinet would not vote on the map at all. Due to the vehement opposition of Labor Party chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Netanyahu had agreed to postpone the vote for a week while a ministerial committee considered Labor's objections.

But at some point during the five-hour meeting, the other Labor ministers told Barak they saw no point to postponing the vote. It was better, they said, for Labor to simply vote against the proposal to express its opposition to the inclusion of the settlements. Barak agreed, and so the vote went forward.

"There are several small settlements that are consistent sources of extremist activity that damage the fabric of life in the West Bank, as in last Friday's severe incident at the mosque," Barak explained, referring to the torching of a mosque near Nablus. "I don't think we ought to give them a prize in the form of including them in the national priority map."

"The Labor Party's priorities are the Galilee, the Negev and the periphery - and that's it," he added.

According to officials in Netanyahu's bureau, the decision on which settlements to include in the map was made by the Israel Defense Forces and approved by Barak and his staff. Last week, they noted, Barak's advisors explicitly said the new map was good for Israel, and even the defense minister himself expressed support for it.

Nevertheless, due to the opposition expressed by his colleagues in the faction, Barak joined them in voting against the map yesterday.