Israel's government puts off discussion of evacuating West Bank settlements

Monday, September 8, 2008

JERUSALEM -- Israel's government on Sunday postponed discussion of landmark legislation that would pay Jewish settlers to leave their homes in the West Bank, but said it would take up the matter next week.

At the opening of the meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet that Israel would likely have to uproot West Bank settlers as part of a future peace agreement.

In light of Israel's continuing peace talks with the Palestinians, he added, "it would be proper" to think about providing cash incentives for settlers to leave voluntarily.

Olmert said it was important to learn from the mistakes of Israel's last evacuation of settlers -- the 2005 pullout from the Gaza Strip -- and it was important to plan ahead.

"I think it is good to start thinking about these issues and to see how we prepare for them in the right way," Olmert said.

Israel evicted 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements in mid-2005. Many settlers refused to plan for or cooperate with the operation. A government watchdog has accused the government of poorly planning for the settlers after their evacuation, most significantly by not doing enough to move them into permanent housing from temporary quarters.

Dubbed "evacuation-compensation," versions of the proposal have been pushed in recent years by dovish lawmakers. Sunday's discussion, though a symbolic step, was to be the most prominent sign so far of its acceptance at the highest levels of Israel's government.

Government spokesman Mark Regev cited "time constraints" and said the legislation would be discussed next week.

Under the proposed bill, Jewish settlers willing to leave their homes in territory thought likely to be transferred to the Palestinians would receive payment from the government.

The bill is aimed at minimizing friction with settlers and paving the way for a large pullback from the West Bank, which the Palestinians claim as part of a future independent state. Proponents of the bill have said up to half of the 70,000 residents of settlements expected to be evacuated would leave if they had the financial means.

The proposal is nowhere near implementation, and Olmert had no plans to ask his ministers to vote on it. Making any progress more unlikely, Olmert has said he will step down after his party elects a new leader this month, a step likely to throw Israel's government into turmoil and which could lead to new elections.

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