The two faces of Ariel Sharon need to be scrutinised

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The Independent Online

As so often in Israeli politics, the contradictions of Ariel Sharon are at the heart of the exposure of official connivance with the determination of Jewish settlers to expand Israel's grip on the occupied West Bank.

As so often in Israeli politics, the contradictions of Ariel Sharon are at the heart of the exposure of official connivance with the determination of Jewish settlers to expand Israel's grip on the occupied West Bank.

While admitting that she was unable to secure "the full picture", Talia Sasson says that 24 outposts were set up since Mr Sharon took office; but Peace Now puts the figure at nearer 50, about half the total.

The settlers lost no time yesterday in pointing the finger at Mr Sharon - who commissioned the report - as a principal conniver. One prominent settlers' spokesman, Shaul Goldstein, said: "It's obvious the one who sent us to do so in order to protect the roads and land is the Prime Minister, so he should look at himself in the mirror and ask himself why and how he did it and he has to be questioned, not us."

In the daily Haaretz, Adi Mintz, the former managing director of the Yesha Council, was quoted as explaining what he said had been Mr Sharon's involvement in the "meticulous planning" of the outposts. "Someone would sit with Sharon and tell him, 'This point is strategic and important.' Sharon would get back to him a few days later and say, 'You're right, this is an important point. It must be seized.' The ministers knew about them. Even [Benjamin] Ben Eliezer, as Sharon's defence minister [before 2003] toed the line and instructed his people to co-operate. At a certain stage Sharon turned his back and made an about-face. We are not lawbreakers. We are not the villain in this tale."

Hardly surprising then, that opinions differed sharply yesterday over Mr Sharon's decision to commission Ms Sasson's report. Gideon Meir, the foreign ministry's director general, emphasised that outpost construction had begun under Yitzhak Rabin's premiership after the Oslo accords as a means of evading Mr Rabin's freeze on settlement expansion.

He said the commissioning of the report showed Mr Sharon's "political courage" and determination to make the legal case for dismantling settlements more robust, and to enforce the law.

More sceptical Israelis argue that Mr Sharon - under US pressure - bought time by commissioning the report and may buy time again by delaying implementation of its recommendations at least until he has completed his plan to pull 7,500 settlers from Gaza.

A tellingly downbeat note was sounded yesterday by Dror Etkes, the settlements expert at Peace Now, who said the emphasis on outposts played into the hands of settlers, by ignoring the much larger settlements the outposts were created to link. "Even without them there are 240,000 settlers living in the West Bank," he said.

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