Unsettling for Sharon
IN DISCLOSING systematic government sponsorship of illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank, a report presented last week by a former chief criminal prosecutor in Israel was hardly telling Prime Minister Ariel Sharon something he did not know. The value of Talia Sasson's 300-page account of how government funds were siphoned into trailers, mobile homes, and illicit hookups to Israel's electricity grid is that it documents a deception that was common knowledge to many Israelis, depriving Sharon and others who collaborated their fig leaf of deniability.
The Sasson report should put an end to Israeli policymakers pretending they can plan for the future as if it will be possible to have security while holding on to large tracts of the West Bank.
Until recently, Sharon was an examplar of this delusion. Known as the primary patron of the settlements, he based his support of settlement expansion not on biblical interpretation but on a military man's conception of security. However, his recent determination to dismantle Israeli settlements in Gaza and relocate 8,000 settlers reflects a recognition that settlements cannot be equated with security -- indeed, that the converse may be true: that the settlers' continual poaching of Palestinian land may conflict with Israel's long-term security interests.
The Sasson report found that at least 105 of the illegal West Bank outposts were established since the mid-1990s, that 24 of those went up since Sharon came to office, and that the dates of inception for 10 more could not be determined. The significance of this finding is that Sharon had pledged to President Bush that he would take down all the outposts -- which are usually forerunners of larger settlement clusters -- that were founded after he became prime minister in March 2001.
In the aftermath of the report, administration officials say they expect Sharon to keep his promises. Sharon's confidantes are hinting that he should not be pressured to take on settlers in the West Bank until he has completed the Gaza withdrawal this summer. For her part, Sasson recommended that Israel's attorney general should consider opening investigations of those who funneled government money illegally to the outposts.
The US-Israeli spat about the outposts is merely a disagreement about the timing of a retrenchment that has become inevitable. Similarly, the point of prosecuting individual Israeli civil servants would be simply to deter others from doing the same. The truly culpable parties are the policymakers who deluded themselves into believing that by covertly expanding settlements they could permanently prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state on most of the West Bank.