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The American administration has decided to ease its pressure on Israel to evacuate illegal outposts and freeze settlement construction in the West Bank.

Sources in Jerusalem are under the impression that Washington is leaning toward accepting Israel's position on giving preference to implementing the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

Senior American officials who previously viewed the outpost evacuation as a test of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's seriousness, strength, and ability to keep his promises, changed their position after the Knesset ratified the disengagement plan in last month's vote. The officials received the impression that Sharon is determined to advance his plan, and faces considerable political difficulties. Israel also presented the administration with information on the progress made regarding the freezing of settlement construction.

The United States will continue to remind Israel of its commitments to evacuate illegal outposts and freeze settlement construction, and has no intention to give up on their implementation. However, government sources believe the administration will refrain from exerting heavy pressure in the near future as long as the disengagement plan is proceeding. If its execution is delayed, or frozen, the United States will demand that Israel keep its promise. "It's like release on bail," an Israeli source said.

As delineated in the road map, Washington demanded that Israel stop the expansion of West Bank settlements so there would be land reserves for the future Palestinian state. Subsequently, Sharon promised U.S. President George W. Bush that Israel would evacuate the unauthorized outposts and limit construction in the settlements to areas already built, thereby allowing for upward building but not taking over any additional land.

Israel's commitments were anchored in an April 14 letter sent by then-director of the Prime Minister's Bureau, Dov Weisglass, to White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer and the defense minister's adviser Baruch Spiegel were charged with coordinating implementation of these promises.

Israel presented the United States with a list of 23 outposts that were built after March 2001 and earmarked for evacuation. The administration rejected the list, calling it unsatisfactory, but agreed to wait for the report of attorney Talia Sasson. Sasson was appointed, together with Spiegel, to find an "overall solution" for the outpost evacuation rather than the abortive effort of evacuating them one at a time. The report is expected to be completed by the end of December.

Sasson has been collecting material from ministries to determine how the outposts were built and the settlements were expanded in violation of the law, as well as how budgets were diverted from the ministries and local authorities to aid the illegal construction. Following the probe, some ministries began enforcing regulations that had been ignored until then. Last week, Spiegel met Kurtzer and may have reported to him the new enforcement efforts.

"We are committed to the road map and expect the Israeli government to keep its commitments to President Bush," an American source said.

Meanwhile, Sharon has canceled a planned trip to the U.S. next week to attend the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Cleveland. He will probably leave for Washington only after Bush's swearing-in ceremony on January 20.

When Sharon congratulated Bush by telephone upon his election last week, the premier said he was "resolved to promote the issues on the agenda," hinting at his previous promises.