Joshua Mitnick
The Jewish Week
September 9, 2008 - 8:00pm

The Web site of the Jewish settlement here, near Ben-Gurion Airport, boasts ?private homes, spectacular views, fresh air, space, and peace of mind.?
The idyllic mountain vistas from Na?aleh are indeed stunning, but whatever peace of mind the 9,000 residents absorb from the rural Judean hills has been ruptured by the nagging reality that their settlement is separated from the rest of Israel by a checkpoint and the West Bank security barrier.

?We see that we?re outside,? said Itzik Yekutiel, a nine-year resident and former member of the Na?aleh town council. ?When people moved here, the government helped with stipends and mortgage assistance. Now that there is a fence people feel neglected.?

For the first time, instead of incentives to move to the settlements, Israel?s government is considering a proposal to offer residents money to abandon the isolated settlements that are likely to be handed over to the Palestinians as part of a peace deal.
The proposal is a milestone because for the first time in the West Bank the government would single out the settlements it plans to abandon even before a peace deal.
Known in Hebrew as pinui mi?ratzon, ?evacuation by choice,? the proposal envisions offering about $300,000 per household to Israelis living in communities both on the eastern side of the barrier and outside of the sprawling city-like settlement blocs.
According to a survey commissioned by Vice Premier Haim Ramon, as many as 25 percent of the Jewish residents of the West Bank would be open to such an offer, putting a $2.5 billion price tag on the program.

Knesset member Avshalom Vilan from the left-wing Meretz Party, who heads the ?Bayit Ehchad? nonprofit with former Consul General Colette Avital to promote voluntary evacuation, believes that if the offer were sweetened as many as 40 percent could join the program.

?The idea is that sooner or later, under any kind of political agreement, these isolated settlements will be outside Israeli territory,? he said. ?So why keep these settlers trapped? Anybody who wants to move now will be able to do so and end the state of uncertainty.?

Though it was sponsored for years by the dovish Peace Now and Knesset members in the Labor Party, the compensation plan now has advocates like Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who argued this week that such a proposal would better prepare the country for a West Bank withdrawal than it was for the Gaza withdrawal.

After being scheduled for discussion last Sunday, the proposal is again on the agenda this coming Sunday.

Few expect that Olmert can push the legislation through Knesset as a lame duck. At the same time, Olmert?s presumptive successors in Kadima ? Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz ? oppose the bill.

For that reason, the proposal isn?t being taken seriously by many settlers, said Ruchie Avital, a resident of Ofra, a settlement that theoretically would be eligible for compensation.

?They haven?t finished taking care of the people from Gush Katif,? she said, referring to the Gaza Strip settlement bloc dismantled in 2005. ?Even [Syrian President Bashar] Assad believes Olmert doesn?t have a leg to stand on. After the experience of the Kassams [rockets] from Gaza, Israelis won?t want to endanger the center of the country and planes landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. So I think it?s gone as far as it?s going to go.?

But Yekutiel of Na?aleh said that once the proposal was on the cabinet agenda, it?s unlikely to disappear from the public discourse.

According to the Bayit Echad Web site, the plan would affect about 74 settlements with 80,000 residents east of the fence.

But critics describe the plan as a hopeless attempt by a humiliated prime minister to tempt settlers to move by dangling cash.

?A prime minister who thinks everything is a matter of money, and is ending his tenure, thinks that if he offers a bribe, people will take it. He is mistaken,? said Pinchas Wallerstein, the former head of the Binyamin Council, the settlement region just north of Jerusalem. ?Of course if they offer 500 percent of the price, there will be people who will take it.?

Indeed, in Na?aleh ? a settlement where cheap housing and the quality of life in a small, quiet community is the prime attraction rather than nationalist religious ideology ? many residents say if the price were right, they?d move.

In contrast to the residents of most Jewish settlements, the women here dress in tank tops and pants, while the men do not wear yarmulkes. The settlement is made up of mostly young professionals who make the 40-minute commute to Jerusalem and the hour drive to Tel Aviv.

Despite the uncertainty, Na?aleh settlers say that real estate prices have nearly doubled in the last decade, and now a three-bedroom house is nearing $300,000. The Palestinian uprising hasn?t deterred new residents from moving here, but the political uncertainty is a constant.

?I?m not worried,? said Helen Tamam, who managed a bank branch in Tel Aviv and just moved to Na?aleh from northern Israel. ?We could have chosen Tel Aviv, Kfar Saba or Ramat Sharon. There?s a quiet here you can?t get anywhere else.?
Some residents believe the army?s plans to build a fence around a settlement, creating a finger-shaped enclave that would be linked with Israel, could exempt them from eligibility.

?I prefer to evacuate in that situation. There are 200 to 300 families here and you can?t leave them inside a ?finger? enclave,? said Assaf Nissim as he played with his 18-month-old son on the grass outside of the settlement. ?Once they tell me that they need it for peace, that?s fine.?

Nissim, an electrical engineer, moved to Na?aleh from Jerusalem looking for ?reasonable? prices on housing.

?No one here is going to lie down on the floor to block an evacuation,? he said, referring to some Gaza residents. ?If the government offers him enough money to buy a comparable house inside the Green Line, he?ll take it. If he has to take another mortgage loan, he?ll pass.

?If there wasn?t a military checkpoint, [Na?aleh] would be like Kfar Shmariyahu,? Nissim continued said, referring to the wealthy village suburb of Tel Aviv.
On the grass next to Nissim sat Liat Peretz, also a nine-year resident of the settlement. ?If they offer me 2.5 million shekels [$700,000], I?ll move,? she volunteered. ?That would be enough to move to some place normal? inside the Green Line.
At the Sunday cabinet meeting, Olmert said, ?In light of the fact that we might have to make decisions on the evacuation of settlements, it?s preferable to prepare for this already and think about all of its significance, especially when serious negotiations are being conducted.?

Mofaz has come out against the plan, saying it will weaken Israel?s hand in negotiations with the Palestinians on a border.

Yariv Oppenheimer, the director of Peace Now, said his group has been in touch with settlers for years who are interested in moving back across the Green Line.
?It?s not only a political-ideological interest. It?s a humanitarian interest,? he said. ?It?s about the obligation of the state to its citizens. For the people living on the eastern side of the fence, where it?s clearly not gong to remain Israel territory forever, they should have a choice to start over in Israel or to remain.?

Settler leader Wallerstein, however, argued that the West Bank settlements have been the fastest-growing region in Israel during Olmert?s tenure ? growing more than 20 percent to more than 300,000. ?We?re waiting to hit 500,000,? he predicted.
But back at Na?aleh, Yekutiel said he expects a healthy response to the voluntary evacuation from local residents. About a year ago, he hosted representatives from Bayit Echad. If the evacuation plan ever goes into effect, he said, the compensation plan will make it easier for the government to leave the West Bank.

?It will reduce friction and it will be a chance to return to the Green Line,? he said.


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