Ramon: 70 MKs Back Payment for Early Evacuation

Seventy MKs support legislation that would offer compensation to settlers willing to evacuate homes situated east of the separation fence before a final-status agreement with the Palestinians, Vice Premier Haim Ramon told Haaretz yesterday.

Ramon has been quietly probing the likelihood of MKs supporting such legislation, and is also assessing the cost of this offer to between 30,000 to 40,000 settlers. His discreet efforts are being carried out with the full knowledge and support of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"On paper, there are 70 MKs who support the bill," Ramon told Haaretz yesterday, but he also acknowledged the fact that it is possible that some Kadima MKs will not be willing to support the evacuation of settlers prior to an agreement with the Palestinians.

"I estimate that if the matter matures and the prime minister becomes involved in promoting the bill, the number of opponents in Kadima will be less than 10," Ramon said. The intention is to present a bill for a first reading toward the end of the winter session of the Knesset, in March 2008. However, this will not happen unless the conditions - the state of coalition politics and available funding - are considered ripe.

For example, Ramon points out that if the estimated cost of the proposal will be "$10 billion, we may not go for it."

He also said that "if it turns out that the bill will result in the fall of the government, I will not recommend to the prime minister that he push for it."

Ramon began his probe last month, following the Annapolis conference.

Labor and Meretz MKs proposed similar legislation several months ago, but in October the ministerial committee on legislation rejected it.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said earlier this month that Labor, which he heads, will push for the approval of such legislation.

When Barak expressed his support for the legislation during a recent cabinet meeting, Olmert said that this is a subject that deserves examination, but added that he does not intend to bring it to the cabinet any time soon.

In recent days Ramon held talks with the heads of some of the political factions in the Knesset in order to evaluate whether it would be possible to count on their support for passing the legislation.

Among others, he spoke with Likud faction chairman, MK Gideon Saar, who rejected the proposal outright.

Ramon offered Saar a deal under which, in return for Likud parliamentary support for the legislation, the government would not evacuate the illegal outposts in the West Bank and would bolster the settlements that are expected to be included in the settlement blocs of a final-status agreement.

Ramon had described the legislation as being in line with the disengagement plan for evacuating the Gaza Strip and parts of northern West Bank.