Outposts / Status Quo Is Just Fine

The archives of newspapers and Internet sites are filled with hundreds of reports from recent years along the following lines: "The government will soon remove the illegal outposts. The evacuation will be done gradually. Defense officials are worried about violent resistance by settlers and the hilltop youth." All these reports were belied: the Sharon and Olmert governments did not want to remove the West Bank outposts. They preferred to risk political and legal contempt, to be seen to have violated repeated promises to U.S. President George W. Bush, and to present Israel as a country that has trouble imposing its authority on a handful of outlaw settlers.

Why? The bureaus of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak cite two reasons for refraining from vacating the outposts. The first is fear of a violent confrontation, and the other is military-operational. A major operation to raze West Bank outposts, they say, will obligate the IDF to concentrate large forces that are now deployed around the Gaza Strip and along the northern border. In the present security situation, with Gaza roiling and the continuing danger of a flare-up with Syria and Hezbollah, it would not be right to move the troops to Migron.

Olmert is actually less concerned about keeping his coalition intact. Sources close to him say that Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu won't want to defend lawbreakers, and will have difficulty quitting over removing outposts. But it's irrelevant, because the government is in any case avoiding a showdown with the outposts.

Ariel Sharon, who came up with the outpost idea ("capture the hills") toward the end of the Oslo process, preferred to snow the American administration with false promises to buy time. Under Sharon, the defense minister's adviser, Baruch Spiegel, coordinated a comprehensive survey of the outposts, and detailed plans for vacating them and moving residents to existing settlements. Under stronger American pressure, attorney Talia Sasson was tasked to prepare a special report on the outposts, which is still treading the Jerusalem bureaucracy waters.

When Olmert replaced Sharon, he had to implement the High Court ruling and raze nine illegal homes in Amona. Olmert correctly saw it as a test of his determination. The settlers correctly saw it as a test of their endurance, a few months after defeat in their struggle to save Gush Katif. In February 2006 police took the outpost. The homes were destroyed, but the confrontation was far more violent than the Gaza disengagement. The settlers won: since the Amona incident, they have deterred the government from forcible removal.

When Amir Peretz became defense minister, he intended to remove outposts, but quickly discovered he did not have the prime minister's backing. He turned to negotiating voluntary removal of several outposts, in return for "legalizing" other outposts. Barak, who replaced Peretz, made it clear from the start that he wants an agreement with the settlers. The problem is that both sides are comfortable with the status quo.