Yaakov Katz , THE JERUSALEM POST
Israel has a thing with timing, particularly around important diplomatic meetings.
In January, 2007, for example, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert flew down to Sharm el-Sheikh for a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Shortly before Olmert's plane took off, the IDF launched a rare daytime raid on downtown Ramallah in search of a terror suspect. Pictures of the raid - in which four people were killed and 20 wounded - were broadcast live on Al Jazeera. Needless to say, this was not constructive for the Olmert-Mubarak meeting.
On Monday, timing was again not taken into consideration with the Defense Ministry revealing in a court affidavit it had approved the construction of 50 homes in the West Bank settlement of Adam under a master plan for the Binyamin Region that includes the construction of 1,450 housing units.
The affidavit was filed just hours before Defense Minister Ehud Barak left for New York to meet with the US Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell to discuss America's demand that Israel stop exactly what the Defense Ministry affidavit was approving - continued settlement construction.
There are two possibilities regarding the bad timing in this case. One option is that the court had simply set the date for filing the affidavit without taking any external factors into account. However, one could ask why the Defense Ministry, which knew early last week about Barak's meeting with Mitchell, didn't just ask the court for an extension - something the ministry often does in similar cases.
The second possibility is that the filing of the affidavit as Barak left for the US was done on purpose to send a message to the Obama administration that Israel does not plan to cave in completely to America's demand for a settlement freeze. The construction in Adam is meant to pave the way for the evacuation of the illegal settlement of Migron, which is in itself just as important to the US - if not more so, since the outpost was built on private Palestinian land.
Barak, according to some officials, plans to offer the Americans a three month freeze on construction but will claim Israel needs to allow natural growth to continue, particularly in the settlement blocs.
So while Barak is limited in what he can propose to Mitchell regarding the settlements, he does have some maneuvering room on the issue of freedom of movement in the West Bank, the transfer of security over Palestinian towns to the Palestinian Authority and the evacuation of illegal outposts.
In their meeting, Barak will present Mitchell with a list of the gestures Israel has made to the PA over the past 18 months, including the removal of 21 manned roadblocks in the West Bank. A year-and-a-half ago, there were 35 manned checkpoints. Today, there are 14. The IDF has also removed over 100 dirt mounds that had been placed on roads in the West Bank, effectively blocking Palestinian traffic.
However, according to the Americans there is a lot more that can be done.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are still 68 manned checkpoints throughout the West Bank, and an additional 24 "partial checkpoints" which are staffed, according to the agency, on an ad-hoc basis. In addition the checkpoints, OCHA claims that there are 521 obstacles in the West Bank - such as earth mounds - that block off Palestinian access to West Bank roads.
What was unique about OCHA's report was that it was the product of a first-of-its-kind joint survey of the West Bank roadblock situation by the UN and the IDF. The joint tour of the West Bank roadblocks was initiated by Col. Benny Shik, the IDF Central Command's chief engineering officer, who is responsible for dismantling the checkpoints.
The explanation for the discrepancy between the OCHA and IDF numbers has to do with the way one defines a checkpoint. The 14 that the IDF says it maintains in the West Bank are deep inside the territory and could potentially impact Palestinian movement even though they are not manned on a full-time basis.
After removing the 21 roadblocks over the past 18 months, a Palestinian can now travel from Jenin to Hebron without passing even one roadblock or undergoing even one inspection. While some roadblocks remain in the territory, the IDF says they don't have a major impact on Palestinian freedom of movement. At the same time, OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni is considering lifting some of the remaining checkpoints.
OCHA, on the other hand, includes unmanned checkpoints in its count. In addition, the OCHA number includes the crossings into Israel, since some of them are located just over the Green Line. The IDF does not count these since they are manned by the Border Police and do not impact Palestinian freedom of movement. There is also the question of OCHA's political motivations and whether its reports are objective. Israel doesn't think they are.
The motivation of both sides for conducting the joint tour, though, is clear. The IDF has an interest in getting the word out about the roadblocks it has lifted. At the same time, OCHA has the opportunity to obtain its information from the source, which is in this case the IDF.