JERUSALEM – Israel is prepared to dismantle nearly two dozen wildcat settlement outposts in the West Bank in the next few weeks if the U.S. drops its objections to continued building in existing, government-sanctioned settlements, Israeli officials say.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak will bring this proposal to senior American officials during his visit to Washington next week, the Israeli officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposal has not yet been officially submitted.
Under the terms of the U.S.-backed "road map" plan for Mideast peace, Israel is to both take down the outposts and halt building in existing settlements. But it has flouted those obligations since the road map was signed in June 2003.
The tit-for-tat proposal was formulated by Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the officials said.
President Barack Obama demanded in a meeting with Netanyahu in Washington last week that Israel halt all settlement growth. But Netanyahu has defied that call since his return to Israel, saying his government will continue to build homes in existing settlements.
The U.S. considers the settlements — home to nearly 300,000 Israelis — obstacles to peace because they are built on captured territory the Palestinians claim for a future state.
But Netanyahu and Barak both say the 121 existing settlements must be allowed to expand for "natural growth," the ill-defined term Israel uses for population growth in the settlements.
U.S. policy and the road map specifically oppose settlement expansion to account for natural growth. Settlement construction is sure to come up this week when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas goes to the White House.
Abbas has said there is no point to meeting with Netanyahu unless he freezes settlement construction and agrees to open negotiations on Palestinian independence. Netanyahu has agreed to renew talks, but has resisted U.S. pressure to voice support for Palestinian statehood.
The settlement outposts are a peripheral part of Israel's West Bank settlement enterprise because only a few thousand people live there, generally in tents or mobile homes. But these wildcat communities, erected to extend the Israeli hold on West Bank land, have become a rallying point for settlers and their supporters and a bone of contention for the Palestinians. Several have turned into full-fledged settlements.
Settlers have put up an estimated 100 outposts since the early 1990s, without government authorization but with the knowledge of an array of government officials. Under the road map, some two dozen are to be torn down.
Netanyahu has clashed with members of his hawkish Cabinet in recent days over dismantling that smaller number of outposts. He has said he will not tolerate unauthorized construction, but some of his coalition allies don't want the outposts knocked down.
Barak, the official authorized to order outpost demolitions, has taken little action against the outposts since becoming defense minister two years ago.