Olmert, Barak at Loggerheads Over Evacuation of West Bank Outposts

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has reached an agreement with leaders of the settlement movement for the peaceful evacuation of 18 outposts in the West Bank, sources close to the minister told Haaretz. They warned that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's "rash" intention of forcefully uprooting an outpost near Ramallah may jeopardize the deal. The prime minister's associates said that the accusations against him were "intolerable."

Olmert himself said yesterday that not evacuating outposts was "disgraceful."

Barak's associates claim the defense minister was angered by an article in Yedioth Ahronoth last Friday, quoting sources close to Olmert as saying that the prime minister is distrustful of the understanding between Barak and the settlers. The paper said Olmert is determined to evacuate Migron.

"Olmert is acting with the same frivolousness that characterized his behavior in the Second Lebanon War," Barak's aides said, adding that Olmert was "endangering efforts to achieve an evacuation without violence.

The agreement between Barak and the Yesha Council, which represents the settlers in the West Bank, was struck after long months of deliberations. The talks were organized by Barak's adviser on settlements, Eitan Broshi, and the minister's chief of staff, Brigadier General Mike Herzog.

Barak's office says the negotiations involved 26 outposts which were set up since March, 2001. Israel has consented to evacuate them as set out in the United States' road map plan, authored by the administration of President George W. Bush.

Sources close to the defense minister said Barak had on three occasions presented Olmert with a compromise for the consensual eviction of 18 of the outposts. Olmert opted to postpone the deal each time, claiming the timing wasn't right, the sources said.

The settlers from the 18 outposts would, under the agreement, move to existing, neighboring communities. However, Barak's negotiators did not agree to allow the settlers from the various outposts to move to other outposts.

In exchange for moving to preexisting settlements, the settlers stand to receive building concessions. Additionally, Barak offered to grant them permits for infrastructure projects which the government has shelved for some time.

Barak's associates said he thought that an agreement could also be reached on the evacuation of Migron, which is located near Ramallah and is the largest outpost on the list. Barak's people said the settlers realized that evacuation of the contested outpost was inevitable, as it is located on privately owned Palestinian land.

"The settler leaders know that the High Court of Justice will ultimately order the evacuation," sources from Barak's office explained. They added that the minister was aware of reports by the Shin Bet security service's so-called "Jewish department," which deals with terrorism by Jews and predicted that evacuation of the outpost would be "extremely violent." They said Barak was trying to avoid such bloodshed.

"It seems as though the prime minister is actually seeking a violent confrontation with the settlers for political gain. This sort of frivolity could end in violence," Barak's aides warned.

Olmert's office rejected the allegations: "After four years of little progress on the unauthorized outposts, it can hardly be argued that the prime minister is acting frivolously," they said in response. "Such a statement cannot be tolerated." They added that Olmert's comments at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, to the effect that refraining from evacuating outposts is disgraceful, should not be seen as criticism aimed at Barak, "who assumed office only last June."

As for the prime minister's attitude toward the result of Barak's negotiations with the settlers, one source from Olmert's office said that it "does not meet any of the standards of real agreements." The official went on to say that the settlers' leaders are seeking to arrange a deal involving something the settlers do not legally own.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei, head of the Palestinian Authority's negotiating team, are scheduled to meet today in Jerusalem to discuss for the first time the core issues for a permanent peace agreement.