Jerusalem — To almost every country in the world, all of Israel’s settlements on the occupied West Bank are officially illegal. Israel rejects this view but does consider one group of settlements illegal under its own laws. Yet, less than a handful of these unauthorized outposts have been evacuated since June 2004, when then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised President George W. Bush to remove them. Of those that were evacuated, most were repopulated within days.
Now, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet has decided to ignore Sharon’s promise for at least another three years. On March 11, the cabinet reached an agreement with Migron — the oldest of the unauthorized settlements, located near Ramallah — to allow residents to stay put until 2015. In the meantime, an authorized settlement will be built nearby, and that is where they will move in three years.
To Dov Weissglass, a senior aide to Sharon who was deeply involved in the commitments his boss made to Bush, the reason is simple: “My impression is that the present government does not feel it is bound by previous obligations,” he told the Forward. “They simply leave it as it is while all sorts of initiatives to legalize [the illegal outposts] pop up.”
Sharon’s commitments to Bush were based on, but independent from, the Middle East Road Map for Peace, a U.S.-brokered agreement accepted in June 2003 by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Weissglass said he believed this agreement was now “obsolete.”
Mark Regev, Netanyahu’s spokesman, denied that Israel is failing to act against outposts, citing the Migron arrangement and the government’s plan to evacuate another community, Givat Assaf, this summer. “I don’t accept there is non-evacuation of outposts,” he said. “Illegal construction will be coming down.”
It will not, however, be coming down by March 31, the date by which Israel’s Supreme Court ordered the government to complete Migron’s demolition.
In the last 15 years Israel’s unauthorized outposts have become a bone of contention in the Middle East peace process. The term “outposts” encompasses approximately 100 Jewish communities in the West Bank that were built without government permits or planning approval. Despite this, many receive substantial government support. The international community has said that even if Israel does not evacuate approved settlements until a peace deal is achieved, it should evacuate the outposts immediately.
But outposts have become the issue that slips through the net. In his 2004 letter to Bush, Sharon said, “We are fully aware of the responsibilities facing the State of Israel. These include limitations on the growth of settlements [and] removal of unauthorized outposts.” In an accompanying letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Weissglass, his top aide, pledged to submit to the United States “within 30 days … a list of unauthorized outposts with indicative dates of their removal,” followed by “continuous action to remove those outposts in the targeted dates.”
Israel never submitted the list. U.S. and Israeli officials involved at that time offer varying reasons why.
Sharon, Weissglass said, “had a clear intention to keep his word and dismantle the [outposts]. But afterwards we got started with the  disengagement from Gaza, which was very complicated and a heavy load in terms of public relations. So we did not feel it was the right time.” Later, Sharon was felled by a stroke.
Weissglass said also that America supported putting the matter on hold. And at least one former U.S. government official partially agrees.