It has receded from memory amid mutual bloodletting and plans for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, but about a year ago there was a Middle East peace process named the road map.
As steps towards peace, the Israeli outpost of Givat HaTamar and dozens of other outposts established during Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tenure without formal government authorization were to be removed from West Bank hilltops.
But with the road map moribund and international attention focusing on a possible Gaza pullout, Givat HaTamar and other West Bank outposts are steadily becoming permanent communities, fixtures on a future map of Israel that is to include wide swaths of occupied territory that Palestinians envision as the heartland of their future state.
That, along with Israel's construction of a West Bank security barrier whose legality is to be decided Friday by the International Court of Justice, is something settlement critics say will complicate peacemaking.
"The real picture is that everything that is not evacuated is growing," says Dror Etkes, who monitors settlements for the Peace Now movement. He says that 48 outposts established after March 2001 are still in place, almost all of them inhabited. He adds that out of 26 outposts that were removed since the road map was announced, just five were inhabited. But a senior government official says that 80 outposts have been removed, more than the total that ever existed according to Peace Now.
The road map's stated goal is a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Palestinians have long complained that settlement expansion negates viability by reducing the future state's territory and breaking it up into enclaves. The Palestinians have not implemented security reforms required by the road map.
After a meeting this week with Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom, US Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly expressed "disappointment" over what he said was the slow pace of Israel's outpost removal.
But Washington's position is in the eye of the beholder. Israel is saying it has secured American agreement to keep some of the outposts intact, something the US does not deny. "We're not deceiving or lying," says the senior Israeli official. "Israel has presented the United States with a clear list of the 28 unauthorized outposts and they will be evacuated. All of those not being removed now are being held up the Supreme Court. We have to abide by court rulings."
The senior official adds that in Israel's view, the delay is not harming the Palestinians. "It does not involve life and death for them. Removing outposts does not in any way change the miserable life conditions that Yasser Arafat has imposed on the Palestinians."
Peace Now says that during the last two months three outposts were dismantled but three new ones sprang up. Expansion is continuing at 11 outposts throughout the West Bank besides Givat HaTamar. But the the senior Israeli official says that five outposts will be removed next week.
Israel and the US are refusing to disclose the list of outposts Israel will vacate. The difficulty of obtaining precise data is accentuated by discrepancies among Israeli figures. Taking issue with the number of 28 settlements to be evacuated cited by Mr. Shalom and the senior official, a second Israeli official, from the defense ministry, says that the list handed to the US actually consists of only 22 outposts.
Regardless of what the road map says, the US, according to Mr. Sharon, has unequivocally endorsed Israel's retaining some outposts on the grounds that they are essential to its security.
Sharon said in November that he led US officials on a tour of the West Bank in which he convinced them that some of the outposts should not be dismantled. "Let us say there is a settlement established twenty five years ago at the bottom of a hill, which is state land, and that an outpost is set up on the hill. If the settlers leave the outpost, the Palestinians will shoot from the hill," he recalled telling the Americans.
Asked about Sharon's account, Paul Patin, a spokesman for the US embassy in Tel Aviv says: "There have been discussions between Israel and the United States for two years on this issue... We don't believe it serves any purpose to lay this out to the public."