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Israel Shelves Plan to Pull Out Of Settlements In West Bank

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

JERUSALEM, Aug. 22 -- The Israeli government's plan to dismantle some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and redraw the country's borders is being shelved at least temporarily, a casualty of the war in Lebanon, government officials said.

The plan, which propelled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to victory in March elections and was warmly endorsed by President Bush as a way of solving Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, is no longer a top priority, Olmert told his ministers last weekend, according to one of his advisers.

Instead, the government must spend its money and efforts in northern Israel to repair the damage from the war and strengthen the area in case fighting breaks out again, Olmert said.

"I've decided to invest most of my energy and the government's energy in rehabilitating the north," Olmert said Monday in the northern community of Kiryat Shemona.

"This is a national new priority. It takes precedence for the moment over realignment" of the settlements, Miri Eisin, an adviser to Olmert, said Tuesday. "At the moment there will be no withdrawal."

Even without the financial considerations, the plan for unilateral withdrawal from some settlements is dead, other political figures and analysts said. The seizure of Israeli soldiers and the renewed fighting in the Gaza Strip -- from which Israel withdrew last year -- and in southern Lebanon -- from which Israel withdrew in 2000 -- have left the Israeli public with little appetite for additional pullouts.

"It's not operative or realistically possible today," said Dan Schueftan, deputy director of national security studies at the University of Haifa and a proponent of the plan. But he predicted that "inevitably, we will have to come back to it."

Olmert's plan could have required the removal of about 70,000 of the estimated 250,000 West Bank settlers. The exact lines of the proposal were never made public, however, and some in his government talked of evacuating fewer settlers.

Now, "it's not relevant. It's not the right time to discuss the matter," the minister of immigrant absorption, Zeev Boim, a close Olmert associate, said through an aide Tuesday.

The plan has been at the center of political debate in Israel since last August, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismantled Jewish settlements in Gaza and pulled out the Israeli troops guarding them. Olmert, who became acting prime minister when Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke in December, won the elections in March and formed a government on the promise to extend the withdrawal to outlying Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He promised that if there was no agreement from the Palestinians, Israel would unilaterally set its own borders around the remaining settlements.

Olmert sought endorsement for the plan during trips to London and Washington, where Bush embraced it as filled with "bold ideas." As recently as 10 days ago, Bush asked Olmert in a phone conversation, "What about that plan you presented to me?" Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported.

But low-scale clashes with Palestinians inside the Gaza Strip intensified this year, and on June 25 an Israeli soldier was seized at an army border outpost by Palestinians who tunneled across from Gaza. Seventeen days later, two more Israeli soldiers were taken by Hezbollah militia fighters on the Lebanon border, and Israel found itself fighting on two fronts.

Critics said the attacks from southern Lebanon and Gaza showed it was folly to have abandoned those areas without a deal to ensure some authority remained there to curb attacks.

"I think that it is clear to everyone that the unilateral disengagement is a mistake," said Eli Yishai, minister of industry, trade and labor in Olmert's cabinet. "It's wrong to give up land unilaterally. It's clear to everyone that now it's canceled."

Scrapping the withdrawal plan brought mixed reaction from both sides of the long-running settlement controversy. Dror Etkes, director of the Peace Now Settlement Watch, said the government's plan for some withdrawals was better than no withdrawal. But "the reason they wanted to do it unilaterally is that they wanted to pay less" in terms of land, he said. "What they are willing to pay is something that not a single Palestinian was ready to buy."

Eventually, Etkes said, Israel will have to negotiate with the Palestinians. He said that process would inevitably result in removing far more settlements than Olmert's government proposed. "Every day that passes, Israel is intensifying the dilemma," Etkes said.

Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a supporter of unilateral withdrawal, said the Gaza pullout was done "only with the stick and no carrots" and should have been accompanied by aid to the Palestinians.

"Unfortunately, there is not much room for negotiation right now," he said. "There's too much conflict."

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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