Israeli Cabinet Backs Dismantling Settlements

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Israeli Cabinet (search) ministers on Wednesday called for the immediate dismantling of all unauthorized Israeli settlement outposts, after a study found that the government played a key role in establishing and expanding them in violation of stated policy.

The report, sponsored by the government, described the secret cooperation of various ministries and official institutions in channeling money to the outposts, which settlers began setting up more than a decade ago to break up the contiguity of Palestinian areas and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) had repeatedly promised the United States to dismantle the outposts, one of Israel's first obligations under the internationally backed "road map" peace plan. However, since accepting the road map in 2003, Israel has only removed a few outposts, citing legal difficulties.

The 340-page study was being presented Wednesday in a news conference at Sharon's office. From excerpts leaked a day earlier it was not immediately clear to what extent Sharon, once the leading settler patron, was being held responsible for the establishment and expansion of the outposts.

As foreign minister in 1998, Sharon had urged settlers to seize West Bank (search) hilltops and establish outposts. One of the peak periods for outposts began after Sharon became prime minister in 2001.

Shaul Goldstein, a senior settler leader, said Sharon was deeply involved. "It's obvious that the one who send us to do so in order to protect the roads and land is the prime minister so he should look at himself in the mirror and ask himself why and how he did it and he has to be questioned, not us."

Yariv Oppenheimer, head of the anti-settlement group Peace Now, said that "it's something the government with the settlers, and it's actually the policy of Israel in the West Bank."

Housing Minister Yitzhak Herzog, a member of the moderate Labor Party, acknowledged that Sharon would have played a key role in setting up the outposts, but said the prime minister has had a change of heart and should be praised for ordering a review of the outposts policy.

Labor joined Sharon's coalition late last year to help him push ahead with a proposed withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements this summer.

"The prime minister is displaying unusual courage in the recent period, including on this issue (outposts)," Herzog told Israel Army Radio. "The prime minister was connected to this issue, as someone who led the settlement movement ... for many years."

"But to unload the whole story on the prime minister is not right," Herzog added.

On Sunday, Sharon is to present the report to the Cabinet during its weekly meeting. It remains unclear whether the ministers would hold a vote on whether to approve the recommendations, which reportedly include prosecuting several key players in setting up the outposts.

Israeli radio reports said Sharon would adopt the recommendations later Wednesday.

Herzog and former Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer urged Sharon to dismantle all outposts immediately. Ben-Eliezer said the government has to send a clear message to the settlers that they could no longer act as they please, and that keeping outposts poses a grave danger to peacemaking with the Palestinians.

"Unless the government states its position unequivocally and takes clear and drastic action, it won't do any good," Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio. "We dismantle 20 (outposts) and tomorrow there will be 40."

The study pointed to the housing ministry as a key source of support for the outposts, particularly when it was led by right-wing politicians during Sharon's first and part of his second administration. Herzog, who took over earlier this year and opposes settlement expansion, said he had halted all funding for the outposts.