During the week in which the government approved the disengagement plan, Ariel Sharon and Shaul Mofaz met to discuss another matter: bolstering West Bank settlement blocs that are slated to be annexed to Israel under a final agreement. The defense minister - who covers himself with a prime ministerial endorsement for every construction plan over the Green Line - brought along to the meeting his adviser on settlement affairs, Ron Shechner, who presented a list of projects that are in various planning stages and asked for Sharon's blessing.
When they got to the item on construction of 550 new apartments in Ma'aleh Adumim, Dov Weisglass interrupted. He wanted to "make extra sure" that the plan keeps his promise to Condoleezza Rice that construction in the settlements won't go beyond "the existing construction line." Mofaz commented that, if necessary, it is possible to postpone the tender on grounds of political sensitivity. "Ma'aleh Adumim?", Sharon cut in. "Since when is there a political problem?" And he approved implementation.
Later in the meeting Sharon also approved "declaration of state lands" - the first step in establishing a settlement - in Mevo Adumim, between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem, and Eitam Hill, adjacent to Efrat. On a visit to Efrat several days later, Mofaz informed settlers of the plan to expand the town northward and bring the hill within the separation fence's route. Sources at the Prime Minister's Office said Sharon had rejected several other proposals by Shechner. The meetings between the two are businesslike, without the chemistry and personal closeness that existed between Sharon and Ze'ev Hever (Zambish), his settlement building partner.
Sharon's bureau, which issues lengthy press releases for every mundane discussion about the disengagement, issued nothing on the meeting with Mofaz and Shechner. On that day, the PMO informed the media only of a phone conversation Sharon held with his Dutch counterpart.
Shechner's previous visits to Sharon, about once every three months, were also not highlighted. Perhaps the thinking there was that settlement building doesn't interest the public, or perhaps Sharon was sticking to the rule he established in the days of massive construction in the territories, that it's best to act and shut up.
Israelis who met U.S. envoy Elliott Abrams last week got the impression that the administration was troubled by the media blitz regarding stepped-up construction in Ma'aleh Adumim and its environs more than by the projects themselves.
The proximity in timing between approving the disengagement and construction plans is no coincidence. From the day he presented the disengagement plan in his "Herzliya speech" last December, Sharon made it clear that withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria is just one side of a triangle whose other sides are completing the separation fence in the West Bank and "strengthening control" over the settlement blocs.
The great disengager of Gush Katif did not relinquish his fundamental, deep-seated belief that the Jewish settlement project will determine the border. Through its numerous incarnations, his plan for widening Israel's narrow hips and holding on to "the security zones" in the West Bank continues to guide him to this day. The list of projects planned for the settlements, which is now under review, follows along the same line.
Sharon and Mofaz have been downplaying their roles in bolstering settlements, despite the fact that their signatures are required for every move there. They prefer to be seen as the statesmen of disengagement, and to hide behind former housing minister Effi Eitam. Complaints by the Yesha Council of Jewish settlements about freezing and drying only help to sustain that image.
And when their cover is blown in the media, and the American administration grumbles, the transparent excuses are whipped out. "That's an old plan," "Rabin approved it," etc. So what? Rabin also talked to Arafat and considered withdrawing from the Golan Heights.
But that's enough for the American administration, preoccupied by a difficult election campaign, to look in other directions. Therefore, even if the fence route moves close to the Green Line, and even if the outposts are vacated, construction in the major settlements will continue. The defense minister already said on some occasion that Ma'aleh Adumim is a city in Israel, not some little settlement or isolated outpost.
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