Analysis / Unraveling 37 years of entanglement
By Aluf Benn
The United States and Israel have been trying to clear up the "Ma'aleh Adumim incident" that clouded relations last week.
A plethora of reports on massive construction in Ma'aleh Adumim settlement and its surroundings forced the administration to issue a criticism and awaken the settlements problem at a very inopportune time for both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George Bush.
Israeli sources say the Americans accepted explanations that this was an old building plan rather than a violation of the prime minister's commitment to freeze construction in the settlements. The Bush administration, which is fighting for its political life in a tough election campaign, doesn't want to have to deal with Israel right now.
It has enough problems in Iraq with the voters at home. It has no interest in hearing European and Arab complaints on the lenient treatment of Sharon, who is taking advantage of the elections in America to establish faits accomplis in the West Bank. It is also not interested in upsetting American Jewish voters by unnecessary confrontations with Israel.
Talks by White House envoy Elliot Abrams in Israel over the weekend revealed that the Americans are now interested in two things - Sharon's political survival to carry out the disengagement plan, and the keeping of Sharon's old promise to evacuate the outposts in the West Bank.
Abrams deviated from U.S. envoys' customary itinerary and met Labor chairman Shimon Peres on Friday. He asked about the coalition negotiations, the understandings regarding the Palestinians between Labor and the Likud, the intensity of the objections to evacuate the settlements. These were the very questions he had asked Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom the previous day.
Peres told him there would not be a civil war in Israel and that the victory of the minority could only be achieved by the "hesitancy of the majority." He cited figures from a new World Bank report on the economic distress in Gaza and the increased danger that would follow Israel's withdrawal. He told Abrams of his initiative to set up an international body, with Turkey's participation, which would take over the evacuated settlement lands and build high rises on them for Palestinians.
In any case the disengagement will occur, if at all, beyond the present horizon of Bush's administration, which may not be in office next year. As far as the present White House staff is concerned, the outposts are the most painful thorn in relations with Israel. Again and again Sharon promised to evacuate them, and always the promise turned to excuses and evasions. Even the close supervision of Ambassador Dan Kurtzer has not so far led to the evacuation of a single outpost. Abrams again heard Sharon's explanations for the slow "evacuation pace."
The prime minister's bureau has found a new culprit for this. It is the legal entanglement in the territories - that mishmash of Turkish and Jordanian legislation and Israeli military orders that once provided a legal bullet-proof vest for building the settlements and which now serves the outposts' attorneys.
Sharon has now appointed Attorney Talia Sasson of the Justice Ministry, to sort out this entanglement and Israeli sources console themselves that at least the American administration had a positive reaction to Sasson's appointment, which they took as a gesture of sincerity from Sharon.
She is supposed to provide a legal remedy within two months and the ministries are then supposed to adhere to the new instructions. Then, Sharon's aids promise, a massive operation will be launched to evacuate the outposts even before the elections in America.
Sharon knows the outposts' affair is a test of his credibility in the U.S. and that if elected John Kerry will also not leave him alone on this matter. Still, it is difficult to see how his men can unravel all at once a 37-year old legal tangle, move the defense establishment which is not thrilled at handling the outposts, and remove them from the hills by November.
This is especially so since at the same time they have to bring Labor into the cabinet, overcome the rebellion in the Likud, pass the budget, and approve legislation to compensate
the evacuated settlers of Gaza and the northern West Bank.