Negotiations Over Mideast Land Continue as Settlements Removed

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - With Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials negotiating a final status deal set to meet again Thursday, Israelis were still grappling with images of the forced removal of Jews from disputed land, and a leading cabinet minister criticized the government for not ensuring the PA kept to its side of signed agreements.

Israel moved a step closer to relinquishing more territory to the Palestinian Authority Wednesday, when chief Israeli negotiator Oded Eran presented a map for the Israeli withdrawal from a further five percent of the disputed West Bank to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. He will pass it on to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat for approval.

The map, detailing the areas of withdrawal, was approved by the Israeli cabinet Wednesday, clearing the way for the troop redeployment, scheduled to begin in the next few days.

Of 19 cabinet members, only Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy opposed it and Interior Minister Natan Sharansky abstained.

The five percent withdrawal, originally agreed to in the Wye River Memorandum in late 1998, was reconfirmed in September's Sharm el-Sheik agreement. Once it is completed, the PA will enjoy full control of 12 per cent of West Bank territory, and share control with Israel over 26.8 percent, leaving Israel solely responsible for 61.2 percent.

Sharansky, who was part of the previous government's team that negotiated the Wye River Memorandum, said he was not against the redeployment or the proposed map, but wanted to demonstrate his opposition to the Barak government's abandonment of the principle of "reciprocity."

"I cannot expect from this government that it will transfer less territory to the Palestinians than the previous government, but on the other hand, I said I cannot support these steps of the government because [the] Wye agreement was strongly based on the principle of reciprocity," Sharansky told Israel Radio.

Former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was adamant that Israel see tangible evidence that the Palestinians were fulfilling their part of agreements, primarily dealing with Israeli security concerns.

"Palestinians [took] on themselves some very important obligations about collecting [illegal] arms, about the limits of the police force, about stopping incitement ... none of these obligations, I repeat none of these obligations was fulfilled by Palestinians," Sharansky said. "I don't think that [we] can be successful in our final status negotiations, if we in advance are saying to Palestinians, 'we will fulfill all our obligations but you will fulfill only those you yourself want to fulfill.'"

Wednesday's cabinet decision took place against the backdrop of the early morning army evacuation of the Ma'on Farm settlement. More than 1,000 soldiers were called in to remove five families, 12 individuals and more than 150 supporters.

The evacuation sparked heated debate in Israel and renewed fears that the government intends to remove many settlements, among them established, legal communities.

Ma'on was removed because its occupants had never received required permission to build and it is situated in an IDF firing range area. It was the last of 12 settlements to be removed voluntarily as part of a deal worked out between the Prime Minister and settler leaders.

The day's events featured prominently in evening news programs focusing on opposing interviews coupled with pictures of Jewish soldiers carting off weeping settlers, many clutching their children, and bulldozers destroying their homes. Many Israelis fear the scene may become commonplace in the months ahead as final status negotiations kick into high gear.

Arafat has demanded the removal of all settlements as part of a final agreement with Israel. However, Barak has undertaken to maintain most Israeli settlements, grouped in blocs, under Israeli sovereignty.

Barak sought to shift the emphasis of the event away from a question of land, to focus instead on the issue of law and democracy. The operation was important, complex and sensitive and combined "sense and determination in order to impose the government's will on its citizens," he told a Cabinet meeting shortly after the evacuation took place.

"What happened at the Ma'on Farm is a difficult test for democracy and a red light on the road to anarchy," a statement from Barak's office quoted him as saying. "There was a minority of extremists along with a majority of good-intentioned people who did not understand that this was a test for democracy. The issue is not the Land of Israel, but the primacy of the rule of law and ensuring that citizens obey the government," he added.

President Ezer Weizman, in hospital recovering from gall bladder surgery, spoke to reporters about the Ma'on removal. "It's only the beginning," Weizman said. "We are talking about compromise," Sharansky said. "Let's say 60 per cent of the West Bank, Judea and Samaria will be under our control; 40 per cent under the control of Arafat ... Even in this case, a number of our settlements will be in a very insecure position."

Part of the fear surrounding the current government's actions is that the no one really knows what the Prime Minister is planning. Even cabinet ministers have criticized him for playing his cards so close to his chest.

Foreign Minister David Levy hinted at this problem on Israel television. "The government is required to come to an agreement [with the Palestinians] but it must reveal its intentions," Levy said.