For a day or two in early August, Israel and the United States seemed to be heading for a showdown neither side wanted.
Quick action by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon managed to avert a looming crisis over Israeli building in the West Bank, but the tension could resume as Israel comes under pressure to meet its commitments to dismantle illegal settlement outposts and not to expand existing settlements.
Tension between Washington and Jerusalem was triggered by reports of massive Israeli construction in and around the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, a bedroom community about three miles east of Jerusalem.
The Americans also wanted to know why Israel hadn't removed dozens of "illegal" or "unauthorized" West Bank outposts, despite earlier promises. In early August talks in Jerusalem, Sharon was able to convince a high-level U.S. envoy, Elliot Abrams of the National Security Council, that he was acting in good faith and that he soon would take extensive action to dismantle the outposts.
Simultaneously, Sharon took a number of steps to show the Americans that he meant business: He froze several Housing Ministry projects, despite the fact that they already had received government approval, and he offered the Americans detailed explanations of what was happening on the ground and his government's difficulties in dealing with the settler problem.
Israeli officials also went to unprecedented lengths to coordinate data on the outposts with the Americans. For the first time, the two sides were able to produce an agreed-upon list of which outposts should be dismantled.
Sharon told the Americans that he had ordered a Justice Ministry attorney to prepare new legislation that would make it easier for Israel to dismantle the outposts before the U.S. presidential election in November. Sharon also ordered Dov Weisglass, his bureau chief, to give the Americans a progress report in the next few weeks.
To ensure that there would be no confrontation now with the Americans, Sharon froze a number of projects approved by former Housing Minister Effie Eitam, the hawkish leader of the National Religious Party, who resigned over Sharon's plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.
In his capacity as acting housing minister, Sharon ordered the suspension of tenders for about 1,300 housing units in the settlements of Ariel, Kiryat Arba, Betar Elit, Geva Binyamin, Karnei Shomron and Ma'aleh Adumim until the new minister, Tzippi Livni of Sharon's own Likud Party, examines whether the projects contravene understandings with the Americans on halting settlement expansion.
As for the building that is proceeding in Ma'aleh Adumim, Sharon explained that this was an old project approved by former Prime Minster Ehud Barak's government in 1999 and now nearing completion. It was not something his government had approved or could stop, Sharon said.
Some in the Israeli media confused the building in Ma'aleh Adumim with a far more significant plan to join the city to Jerusalem through a continuous network of urban communities scheme known as A-1, which dates to the administration of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. The idea was to build a complex of residential and tourist areas all the way from Ma'aleh Adumim to Jerusalem, creating a huge metropolitan area and ensuring Israeli control of Greater Jerusalem.
According to Israeli officials, the A-1 plan was designed to preempt an opposing Palestinian scheme to cut Ma'aleh Adumim off from Jerusalem by continuous north-south building, connecting the villages of Abu Dis, Issawiya and Anata, preventing Jewish territorial contiguity.
So far, neither side has done very much on the ground. In his talks with Abrams, Sharon noted that the plan hadn't yet been approved in its entirety and maintained that it was not on the agenda, at least for the time being. For now, the Americans seem prepared to give Sharon the benefit of the doubt on building in existing settlements, but they want to see action soon on removal of outposts.
As a first step to show it is acting in good faith, Israel has charged a senior Defense Ministry official, Baruch Spiegel, with comparing Israeli and American data on the outposts and reaching agreement on numbers and locations. The bottom line is that Israel and the United States now agree on the figures: There are 82 outposts in all, including 23 built after March 2001, when Sharon came to power, and which he has promised to remove first.
"These 23 are the main focus of our work now," Spiegel told Israel TV.
The same model has been adopted with regard to the legal issues pertaining to removal of the outposts: A Justice Ministry official, attorney Talia Sasson, has been assigned the task of formulating new legislation to ease their removal.
The old laws, based on Jordanian and Turkish precedents, afford protection for illegal buildings. Ironically, a system that successive Israeli governments exploited to build settlements is now being used to prevent the government from taking them down.
Sasson has been given two months to come up with new legislation that will radically alter the legal position. Sharon has promised the Americans to act quickly once the legislation is in place and to start evacuating outposts well before the presidential election.
As he seeks international support for his disengagement plan, Sharon has no wish for a confrontation with the United States -- and the American president, in an election year, has no wish for a clash with Israel that could cost him crucial Jewish votes.
Though there is little American pressure on him now, Sharon is well aware that the Americans and the rest of the international community see his ability to remove outposts as a test of whether he will be able to carry out his far more ambitious disengagement plan, which calls for dismantling more than 20 bona fide settlements.
Sharon's accommodating tactics seem to have won him breathing space until after the U.S. election. But if he fails to deliver by then or soon afterward, he knows that he will face strong pressure from the elected president and a possible escalation that could jeopardize his main strategic goal: achieving a separation between Israelis and Palestinians, backed by the international community, led by the United States.
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