PM's Plan Would Put Some Settlements on Map of National Priority Communities

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will seek cabinet approval on Sunday for a new map of national priority zones that will grant 110,000 settlers - most of whom live outside the major settlement blocs - the economic benefits conferred on residents of these zones.

This move, which comes two weeks after Netanyahu announced a 10-month freeze on settlement construction, represents a sharp change from the previous government's policy: Under Ehud Olmert, only communities in the Negev and Galilee were entitled to national priority status.

Designation as a national priority zone entitles a town to additional state funding, which can be spent on programs ranging from professional retraining courses to extra classroom hours and cultural activities. Netanyahu's proposal allots a budget of about NIS 1,000 per person for these benefits, meaning his government will be earmarking an additional NIS 110 million for the settlements.

The proposal the cabinet will be asked to approve on Sunday states that its main purpose is "to encourage population dispersal in the State of Israel and increase the population of the periphery and of areas near the border." Another goal is to "preserve and bolster Israel's national security stamina."

Olmert's government denied national priority status to the settlements on the theory that since Israel would evacuate most settlements - certainly all those outside the major settlement blocs - under any final-status agreement with the Palestinians, there was no point in encouraging people to move to these communities.

Last night, the prime minister's bureau published a special communique on its proposed new national priority map that highlighted the addition of several settlements to the list of towns. This decision, the bureau said, was made primarily due to security considerations.

Director General of the Prime Minister's Office Eyal Gabai explained that the defense establishment ranked all communities on "a scale of security risks, from 1 to 4," and all those with the highest risk ratings - 3 or 4 - were added to the national priority map. These include the Jordan Valley settlements and many others, such as Ariel, Itamar, Nokdim, Kiryat Arba and Emmanuel.

Gabai has been working on the new map for the last five months, and he said it was finished and approved by Netanyahu before the premier decided on the settlement freeze. Gabai said he also showed the map to all the coalition factions and encountered no objections from the Labor Party.

"The map was drawn up based on criteria of equality among the country's various communities and out of a desire to give preference to those who deserve and need it," he said. "By this same yardstick, preference is being given to communities in the 'Gaza envelope' [i.e. near the Gaza Strip], in the Negev or in the Galilee."

He added that the national priority zones would encompass 1.9 million Israelis, of whom 40 percent were Arabs. In contrast, he said, Arabs accounted for only 8 percent of those covered by the previous map.

It is not clear whether Netanyahu coordinated this move with the Obama administration. However, adding numerous settlements to the national priority map is almost certain to spark an outcry from the Palestinian Authority and make it even harder to restart negotiations. It is also expected to elicit protests from the European Union.

Yeshiva head refuses to attend hearing

Meanwhile, the head of the Har Bracha Yeshiva informed Defense Minister Ehud Barak last night that he does not intend to attend a hearing on ousting his yeshiva from the hesder program, which combines Torah study and army service.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi had recommended ousting the yeshiva due to the extremist statements made by its director, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, which included urging soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate settlements. Barak said on Tuesday that he planned to adopt this recommendation, but would allow Melamed to contest this decision at a hearing first.

Chaim Levinson contributed to this report.