By Michael Blum
Agence France Presse
6 September 2006
MAALEH REHAVAM, West Bank, Sept 6 2006-- Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank are looking to the future with renewed optimism, now that "realignment" --withdrawal -- is no longer the priority it once was for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government.
"I think we'll be here for a long time. There's no longer any reason to pull us out," one of the founders of the Maaleh Rehavam settlement near Bethlehem, Drori Bar Levav, told AFP.
He was speaking Tuesday, a day after Olmert was quoted by a Knesset official as telling the parliamentary defense and foreign affairs committee: "At this moment the question of realignment is not on our priority list the way it was two months ago."
"Olmert understands that the Israelis will not accept the expulsion of people from their homes for no valid reason, following the failure of the Gaza pull-out and the consequences of the war in Lebanon," the 30-year-old Bar Levav told AFP.
Established in 2001 on the outskirts of Noqdim, part of the Gush Etzion group of settlements, Maaleh Rehavam has never received the green light from the Israeli authorities.
Just 29 people live in the rogue settlement which the government has promised to dismantle under the roadmap drafted by the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations outlining steps toward establishing a viable Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel.
Olmert's Kadima party narrowly won parliamentary elections in March with the aim of withdrawing from large swathes of the occupied West Bank -- but also effectively annexing
the largest Jewish settlements to Israel, with or without Palestinian agreement.
His realignment plan envisaged dismantling isolated settlements, evacuating some 70,000 settlers and regrouping them.
In March last year, Talia Sasson, a lawyer in the state prosecutor's office, produced a report on illegal Jewish outposts in the West Bank at the behest of then prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Her report recommended evacuating dozens of illegal settlements, but this never happened.
On July 10, a jurist at the justice ministry, Malkiel Blass, suggested legalising most of the unauthorised settlements -- prompting a sharp response from Sasson.
If Blass's recommendation were adopted, the government would be "violating Israeli law and the pledge made to the American administration to dismantle illegal settlements created after March 2001", she wrote in a letter published by the Haaretz daily newspaper.
For Emilie Amroussi, spokeswoman for Yesha, the organisation representing Israeli settlers in the West Bank, "the recommendations to legalise the outposts and Olmert's declaration are encouraging".
"But we're not claiming victory yet," she added quickly. "Olmert has not given up on these projects. He has merely deferred them for political reasons."
Drori Bar Levav is more upbeat, however, believing that he will now be able to stay at Maaleh Rehavam.
"My grandchildren will eat fruit from the trees that I plant," he said, pointing proudly at the vines and olive trees growing around the simple caravan in which he lives.
At the regional council of Gush Etzion, which comprises more than 20 settlements -- Maaleh Rehavam among them -- his optimism is not shared, however.
"Despite what Olmert says, I am not reassured about the future of the outposts and settlements," council president Saul Goldstein told AFP. "The threat of evacuation may
have lessened somewhat, but all that could change very quickly."
Calling himself a realist, Goldstein believes that only the formation of a government of national unity that includes the far right will remove the threat to dismantle unauthorised settlements and prevent Ehud Olmert's realignment plan from eventually going ahead.