- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005

JERUSALEM — The Israeli government has been actively expanding West Bank settlement outposts, settler leaders and a study said yesterday, contradicting repeated government claims that it is working to dismantle dozens of outposts in line with an internationally backed peace plan.

The government-sponsored study on the outposts is to be released today at a press conference with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Excerpts were published yesterday in the Maariv daily newspaper.

The settlement outposts dotting the West Bank, often just a few trailers, are seen as seeds of larger communities — in violation of assurances by successive Israeli governments that they would not build new settlements.

Former state prosecutor Talia Sasson, who wrote the government study, recommended that Mr. Sharon stop giving money to settler-run regional councils in the West Bank for the outposts and consider legal action against government employees who assisted in their construction, Israel Radio said.

An official close to the prime minister said Mr. Sharon likely would adopt the report.

A statement from Mr. Sharon’s office said he would bring the report to his Cabinet Sunday.

But settler leaders said knowledge of the unauthorized settlement building was widespread among government officials, including Mr. Sharon.

“It’s possible there were flagrant violations that began with the prime minister, with the prime ministers, with the chiefs of staffs, the ministers, the attorney general,” said former Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy. “If all of these people are in violation, then that tells you it is government policy.”

Outposts began springing up in 1993 as a protest against an interim peace deal with the Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon, once a staunch settlement supporter, has changed his view since becoming prime minister and accepting the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan in 2003. Mr. Sharon has come under intense U.S. pressure to remove the outposts as part of the accord.

However, the Israeli military has removed only a few, and some were quickly rebuilt by settlers. The government argues that it cannot move more decisively because of legal challenges.

Separately, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz yesterday failed to set a firm date for the start of a promised Israeli troop pullback from five West Bank cities.

But they both signaled the start of the redeployment, delayed by a Palestinian suicide bombing on Feb. 25, could be only days away, pending the outcome of further talks at lower levels.

The two-hour meeting, the first between the newly elected Palestinian leader and a senior Israeli official since his Feb. 8 summit with Mr. Sharon, took place at the main crossing point between Israel and the Palestinian territory Gaza Strip.