The only way to dismantle outposts

When it comes to the interaction between successive Israeli governments and the outposts, two sets of facts appear unassailable. First, the last two prime ministers of Israel have given the United States and the Palestinian leadership solemn commitments regarding the removal of several dozen so-called "unauthorized" outposts in the West Bank. These outposts are patently illegal even by the warped standards of official Israeli licensing procedures regarding settlement construction, with which the mainstream settler leadership has concurred; in many cases they were built on private Palestinian land. The Annapolis understandings recommit Israel to remove outposts under phase I of the roadmap, starting now.

Second, a complex set of circumstances renders it extremely difficult for Israeli governments to fulfill their clear and obvious obligation to remove the outposts. The weak and convoluted nature of most governing coalitions, including the current one, gives the religious and secular right a kind of veto power. The settlers’ hold on key positions in military and government units that deal with the West Bank provides them with influence, infrastructure and early warning intelligence. The outpost settlers’ sense of messianic mission empowers them to invoke violence against their fellow Jews who are sent to remove them and then to appeal to the High Court to restrain the resultant "police violence". And most significantly, the outpost settlers’ superior knowledge of the terrain, coupled with the fact that the land from which an outpost was removed remains under Israeli control and in close proximity to additional settlements, enables the settlers to return repeatedly and rebuild! the outpost until they have worn down the resistance of the authorities and the security community.

Thus has the Olmert government, which on this issue represents a clear majority of Israelis, been stymied on the outpost question. So frustrated are its efforts that it has reportedly even sent Deputy PM Haim Ramon to bargain with the right wing opposition and suggest that the government will forego outpost removal in return for acquiescence in a plan to offer long-term financial incentives for settlers living "beyond the fence" to leave voluntarily.

One can, of course, find fault with Olmert for undertaking commitments and accepting a process that even a third-rate political observer knew it could not deliver on, just as we can query the capacity of the Abbas/Fayyad government in the West Bank to deliver on security, reform and institution-building. But what of the outposts? Even looking beyond the problematic Annapolis process, will the Israeli majority enable a messianic minority of settlers to doom Israel to a demographic nightmare and prevent it from remaining a Jewish and democratic state?

The solution appears to lie in the lessons of experience. When Israel dismantled its settlements in the Gaza Strip in mid-2005, among them were several outposts that were also leveled. No settlers have attempted since then to rebuild in Gaza; the land has remained under Palestinian control. Clearly, this is one successful way to dismantle outposts and settlements. Unfortunately, Palestinian extremists interpreted the Gaza evacuation as a sign of Israeli weakness and have been attacking Israeli territory from Gaza ever since, thereby discrediting the Gaza withdrawal in the eyes of the Israeli public.

A second mode of successful settlement dismantling took place in mid-2005 in the northern West Bank. Four settlements were removed and the entire area they occupied was declared off-limits to settlers. The latter have tried repeatedly to return and rebuild and the IDF has thwarted their attempts. A kind of ritual has developed whereby young messianic settlers exploit holidays like Hanukah and Pesach to try to return and establish outposts on the ruins of the settlements and the IDF removes them. Hopefully, one day soon the Palestinian Authority security forces will prove capable of taking over this territory. Until then, this settlement-removal solution is an acceptable outcome.

The third mode is the least successful: sending large contingents of police and soldiers to remove a few structures from an outpost in the heart of the West Bank. The settlers’ response, detailed above, frustrates the effort. The coalition is endangered, the security forces complain of the cost of confronting extremist fellow Jews, and the settlers chalk up a moral and political victory.

What can we learn from this cumulative experience? The best way to remove outposts in accordance with our obligations and strategic needs is to evacuate the settlements and the outposts in an entire section of territory, like Gaza, and deliver it over to the Palestinian Authority. But in view of the Gaza experience, this cannot be done unless and until Israel is convinced that a responsible PA government and effective security force can replace the IDF. Until that time, the territory should be treated like northern Samaria.

But evacuating entire sections of West Bank territory goes beyond roadmap phase I; it belongs to phase III, the establishment of a Palestinian state in a defined territory. The Olmert and Abbas governments have agreed, with Washington’s blessings, to discuss phase III of the roadmap even as they implement phase I. When it comes to the outposts, and in view of all the weaknesses and constraints in Israel’s performance, they have to go one step further.

They have to discuss ways to integrate phases I and III on a partial territorial basis. Israel would undertake to evacuate the settlements and outposts in a given territorial sector that both sides agree is destined to become part of an eventual Palestinian state, but the IDF would continue to control that territory until Palestinians prove capable of governing it peaceably. That way, Israel would fulfill its obligations, gain the vital demographic benefit and the peace process would be advanced, but Israeli security would not be compromised.