- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

MIGRON OUTPOST, West Bank — With Israel under U.S. pressure to withdraw from illegal West Bank settlements under the terms of its “road map” for peace, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is headed for a collision with one of his most loyal constituencies.

No one has been more supportive of Mr. Sharon than the young Israeli families who occupy hilltop outposts like Migron, a few rows of mobile homes defended by guard dogs that are chained every 20 yards along the inside of a perimeter fence. The year-old settlement northeast of Ramallah is home to about 35 families, and residents say more are on the way.

While official Israeli policy forbids settlement expansion, the Sharon government has done little to stop the sprouting of dozens of hilltop footholds, which can be as seemingly innocent as an antenna and two trailers.

“This is legal, more or less,” said Shuki Sat, a 24-year-old guard and schoolteacher who moved here from the nearby settlement of Beit El, explaining that the Migron settlers had received building permits. “Others have been built on Palestinian land. This all belongs to the state of Israel.”

Last year, in order to keep the Labor Party in his government, Mr. Sharon allowed the evacuation of several outposts and endured chaotic scenes of soldiers forcibly removing young settlers.

But with the release of the U.S.-sponsored road map, which calls on Israel to dismantle outposts established in the past two years, the status of settlements like Migron could become an even bigger headache for his government.

When he served as housing minister a little more than a decade ago, Mr. Sharon gave the green light to a construction expansion in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, becoming a champion in the eyes of Jewish settlers.

But Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz now is preparing a list of outposts slated for evacuation and Mr. Sharon is warning the country that some settlements may have to go as the price of peace.

The political body representing settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is in no mood for compromise. Calling the U.S. peace initiative “even worse than the Oslo agreement,” the council has called on Mr. Sharon to reject the road map outright.

“When it was Ehud Barak, Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres, we knew who we were up against,” settler spokesman Ezra Rosenfeld said in reference to past Labor Party prime ministers.

“The battle lines were clear. We knew friend or foe. Ariel Sharon is somewhere in between. And, as such, he is much more difficult to deal with.”

Mr. Rosenfeld, representing the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, complained that as prime minister, Mr. Sharon “has not built new communities, he has not let existing communities expand. It is a far cry from the Ariel Sharon of the past, who was, excuse the term, a patron saint.”

Until recently, Mr. Sharon was careful to say only that he would make “painful concessions” for the sake of peace, leaving Israelis to speculate whether that meant settlements would be dismantled. But in an interview with the newspaper Ha’aretz last month, he said he might one day have to consider the evacuation of long-established West Bank settlements like Shiloh and Beit El.

Mr. Sharon staked out tough positions on Jewish settlements, suggesting in remarks published yesterday that he will try to hold on to much of the West Banks heartland.

The Israeli prime minister spoke after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell failed to win Israel’s acceptance of a new Mideast peace plan, and days before Mr. Sharon was to meet his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, in the first summit in nearly three years.

Mr. Sharon told the Jerusalem Post in an interview that Israel would hold on to some settlements in the heart of the West Bank, including Beit El, Ariel and Emmanuel.

The Associated Press said Israeli control over those areas would make it difficult to establish a territorially contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank, a goal of the U.S. road map. AP said Mr. Sharon will discuss his objections to the plan with President Bush at the White House next week.

If the Israeli prime minister did evacuate some Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, it would not be the first time. Two decades ago as defense minister, Mr. Sharon oversaw the evacuation of Jewish settlers from the Sinai resort of Yamit, fulfilling the final elements of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

“The settlers definitely have a right to be worried,” said Hebrew University political science professor Avraham Diskin. “More was said by Mr. Sharon verbally about what he means than what was said by Labor Party leaders in the past.”

Government officials have reassured the settlers that only illegal outposts are slated for removal. But no one is sure what that means for communities like Migron, which received initial permits but no final authorization.

Aides to Mr. Sharon say the anxiety is premature. “The prime minister is not going to abandon the settlers and leave them out in the cold,” said a senior source in his office. “No settlements will be removed until there are peace negotiations. And we don’t even have a cease-fire right now.”

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