JERUSALEM, March 13 -- The Israeli cabinet Sunday decided to delay action against illegal settlement outposts, even as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon acknowledged that evacuation of the outposts is required of Israel under the terms of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
Less than a week after a government-sponsored report accused Israel of funding and building Jewish settlement outposts across the West Bank in violation of its own laws and international mandates, the cabinet sent the report's recommendations to a ministerial committee for more study.
"The evacuation of unauthorized outposts is part of Israel's commitments according to the road map," Sharon said at the cabinet meeting, according to a statement issued by his office. He said the ministerial committee "will consider the ways of implementing the opinion." The road map is also backed by the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.
The committee will be headed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who was singled out in last week's report as one of the senior government officials who obstructed the investigation into West Bank outposts by refusing to provide information. At the time, Livni headed the Construction and Housing Ministry -- the government agency the report highlighted as committing some of the most blatant violations of Israeli law in facilitating the construction of settlement outposts.
Dror Etkes, who monitors settlement and outpost expansion for the advocacy organization Peace Now, described Sunday's cabinet decision as "an attempt to bury as quickly as possible the whole question of the management of the government surrounding outposts."
The expansion of Jewish settlements is one of the most volatile issues between Israelis and Palestinians, who say that settlement growth in the West Bank will make it difficult to create a viable, independent state. Outposts, which range in size from a few mobile homes to dozens of more permanent buildings, are used to expand and connect settlements.
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said the ministerial committee will make recommendations on how to respond to the report's conclusions in 90 days, though he said it was uncertain how long it would take to implement any of the committee's proposed changes or to dismantle any outposts.
Gissin said that "it's the prerogative of the government" to decide when, or whether, to remove outposts. Gissin described the cabinet's acceptance of the report as historic and a recognition that the government has acted in violation of its own laws.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, another member of the ministerial committee whose agency was identified in the report as responsible for numerous violations, told the cabinet that no outposts should be dismantled until Israel has evacuated all Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip under its disengagement program, which is scheduled for late summer.
Talia Sasson, a former chief state prosecutor who was appointed by Sharon to investigate the growth of outposts in the West Bank, described in detail how Israeli ministries and Jewish agencies have circumvented Israeli law in funding and building settlement outposts.
She also said Israel facilitated construction of Jewish outposts on privately owned Palestinian property. At a news conference to release the report on Wednesday, she said, "the Housing Ministry was virtually indifferent to the question of who owns the land."
Sasson said she determined that at least 105 outposts have been built illegally, though "there could be more."