Israel discusses West Bank settler buyout plan

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s cabinet debated for the first time on Sunday a proposal to offer compensation to Jewish settlers who volunteer to leave parts of the West Bank that would be handed to the Palestinians in a future peace deal.

No cabinet vote was scheduled on Vice Premier Haim Ramon’s plan, which a spokesman quoted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as describing as an attempt to prepare “the Israeli consciousness” for territorial compromise.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, front-runner in a leadership race in Olmert’s Kadima party, has been cool to Ramon’s proposal, saying it was premature to discuss any buyout.

The “evacuation-compensation” plan, which Olmert supports, would offer payment to settlers who agree, before implementation of any peace deal with the Palestinians, to leave settlements beyond the barrier Israel is building in the occupied West Bank.

They would be resettled elsewhere in the West Bank, in enclaves the Israeli government has said it intends to keep in any final peace accord, or in Israel itself.

Ramon presented to the cabinet a survey that indicated that about 18 percent, or 11,000, of the 61,000 settlers who live east of the barrier would agree to relocate immediately in return for financial compensation, officials said.

COST OF A HOME

Putting the cost of the program at 2.6 billion shekels ($728 million), Ramon proposed paying 1.1 million shekels ($308,000) per family home, about the price of a two-bedroom apartment in parts of central Israel.

The YESHA settler’s council, an umbrella group for Israelis living in the West Bank, has responded to the compensation plan by calling for “the evacuation of Olmert’s government — including Haim Ramon — from public life”.

The clock is already winding down on Olmert’s troubled premiership.

Facing possible indictment in corruption investigations, he has said he would quit after centrist Kadima elects a new leader on September 17. But he could remain prime minister for weeks or months until a new government is formed.

A spokesman for Olmert said the prime minister called on Ramon and his team “to continue work on this important matter and to be prepared to bring it back to the government for further discussion and a decision in the future”.

Some 500,000 Jews live on West Bank land captured by Israel in a 1967 war, including Arab East Jerusalem. The areas are home to some 2.5 million Palestinians.

Israel removed 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, paying them compensation, when it quit the territory in 2005.

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