JERUSALEM, June 27 (JTA) — Israel’s defense minister has put the settlement issue on a front burner just as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is trying to focus world attention on the issue of continued Palestinian violence.
Earlier this week, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said he was ordering the army to evacuate 15 outposts settlers established in recent months near existing settlements in the West Bank.
A Defense Ministry spokesman declined to name the outposts, but said most of them were additional footholds established by settlers in response to attacks by Palestinian gunmen on settlers traveling West Bank roads.
The announcement provoked an outpouring of criticism — including some from officials in Sharon’s office, who in effect told Ben-Eliezer to leave settlement policy to the premier.
Settler leaders and conservative politicians likewise lashed out at Ben- Eliezer, saying he had made the announcement to improve his chances of becoming the next Labor Party leader in September primaries.
Likud ministers Uzi Landau and Reuven Rivlin said this week that no outpost would be taken down without prior discussion in the Cabinet.
On Wednesday, Ben-Eliezer denied the charge of political opportunism, saying he had made the announcement after discussions with military officials.
“All of my thoughts are to prevent people from getting hurt. The matter came up at the request of the army and was coordinated with it to bring about a voluntary evacuation in consultation with settlement leaders,” Ben-Eliezer said.
One settler leader sounded a conciliatory note Wednesday, saying he hoped the matter could be resolved with the defense minister in a positive atmosphere.
“If there is a dialogue and not an offensive by one Cabinet minister or another, it is possible that there is room for some kind of understanding,” said Uri Ariel, of the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In another development Wednesday, Israeli settlers launched a sit-down strike across from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem to protest the government’s ongoing policy of restraint.
Protesters called on the prime minister to let the army respond more vigorously to Palestinian violence.