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News Analysis: Dismantlement of Settlements Will Test Barak and Peace Process

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The painful process of dismembering Israel’s West Bank settlements began this week — and it will provide a crucial test of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s domestic strength and future ability to move ahead with the peace process.

In a politically significant step, Barak launched discussions with settlement leaders Tuesday night about the government’s intention to remove a number of hilltop outposts set up by the settlers in recent months in an attempt to create new facts on the disputed ground.

“A number” was the key phrase.

The Cabinet on Sunday empowered Barak to decide how many of the 42 outposts will be dismantled.

Some of the outposts were approved by the previous, Likud-led government. Others were hastily erected by the settlers and won partial after-the-fact approval. Some — at least seven — have no approval at all.

Barak’s deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, told the settlers Tuesday morning that the government wants to remove a total of 14 outposts: the seven illegal ones and seven others.

He indicated that the second batch of seven is “negotiable” — and it is apparently over those seven that the discussions between the prime minister himself and the settlers were taking place.

Ideally, as the premier told his Cabinet ministers Sunday, he would like to reach an understanding with the settlers under which they themselves remove the outposts, without any intervention by the army.

Failing that, Barak would like to achieve an understanding that would prevent, or at least minimize, settler-troop confrontations.

If that, too, is unobtainable and the dismantlement goes ahead without any prior agreement, the test for Barak will be both at the hilltop sites and on the streets of the main cities.

Will Gush Emunim, the main settlement movement, be able to bring out large numbers of activists and supporters to resist the army bulldozers and mount headline-making protests, as they did back in 1979, when Menachem Begin’s government dismembered settlements in northern Sinai? Or has the momentum for large-scale protests largely dissipated?

Central figures like Aharon Domb of Kiryat Arba have recently been saying that the dream of Greater Israel needs to be tempered by realism and that compromise is therefore the best policy.

Some of these utterances are tinged by a bitter, almost fatalistic realization that the political battle for the soul of the nation has been lost.

This feeling was crystallized by the poor showing of the settler-based National Unity Party in the May elections. It won just four seats and its leader, Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, promptly resigned from the Knesset and from politics on the grounds that he found himself “a general without an army.”

Ironically, in the eyes of many rightists, it was former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than the political left that sapped the political strength of the Greater Israel forces.

He, as Likud leader and prime minister, signed agreements with the Palestinians providing for West Bank withdrawals. They were small-scale withdrawals, but the Likud, traditionally opposed to handing over any of Greater Israel, had agreed to them.

At any rate, according to observers across the Israeli political spectrum, there is not much fight left on the far right — and the removal of the outposts, traumatic though it is bound to be for some settlers, will pass off relatively quietly.

That seems to be the prognosis of the right-of-center politicians who are partners in Barak’s Labor-led government.

Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party, Interior Minister Natan Sharansky of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah and the leaders of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party all trod delicately this week around the issue of the outposts.

Levy cited Barak’s desire to seek dialogue with the settlers. Labor Minister Eli Yishai of Shas asked for detailed briefings from the army in order to better understand the security considerations involved.

None of them threatened a coalition crisis over dismantling the outposts.

Even an opposition motion of no-confidence, debated in the Knesset on Monday, failed to produce cracks — even rhetorical ones — in the coalition veneer of unity.

Labor and Likud officials traded barbs, but the junior coalition partners stayed comfortably apathetic.

If the evacuation is accomplished without too much strife on the streets, there will be no coalition crisis and Barak will have notched up a significant domestic success.

As if anticipating this success and now looking down the road, the Labor Party’s secretary-general, Ra’anan Cohen, announced this week that his party, like the Likud, had set up a team of experts to help plan tactics for the referendum that Barak pledged would be held if and when peace agreements are reached with either Syria or the Palestinian Authority.

While the Syrian track is still blocked without signs of early movement, the removal of Israeli mini-settlements from West Bank hilltops will certainly be interpreted in the region and around the world as a dramatic illustration of Barak’s determination to press ahead on the Palestinian track.

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