Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a senior member of the cabinet from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, said Sunday he would bring a plan to the cabinet for Israel to annex most of the West Bank settlements surrounding Jerusalem, in a move that appeared designed to challenge Netanyahu and outflank Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Katz’s proposal, posted on his Facebook page, came hours after a reported attempt by Netanyahu to delay an effort by pro-settlement lawmakers to annex large settlement blocs in the wake of the election of US President Donald Trump. Until now the effort has been spearheaded by Bennett, whose Jewish Home party is pushing for Israel to annex the Ma’ale Adumim settlement just to the east of Jerusalem.
But Katz’s proposal goes much further than Bennett’s and would include large settlement blocs to the north and south of Jerusalem too.
“Jerusalem first,” Katz wrote in his post. “Today I will propose at the security cabinet that we pass the ‘Greater Jerusalem Law’ that includes extending Israeli sovereignty to the surrounding communities of greater Jerusalem: Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, Beitar Illit and the Etzion Bloc, while joining them to the city of Jerusalem and strengthening it by adding territory and Jewish population.”
“This is a needed first diplomatic step in the era of President Trump,” he wrote.
Israel’s right-wing government has been eagerly awaiting the Trump administration after eight years of tension with Barack Obama’s White House, largely over its opposition to continued settlement activity.
But while Trump has indicated he will adopt a completely different approach to the issue of settlements and Jerusalem, on Sunday there were mixed messages about what his administration actually expects.
Netanyahu has reportedly asked Bennett, the main backer of the initiative, to take his proposed annexation bill off the agenda of Sunday evening’s meeting of the powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation.
Netanyahu reportedly explained to Bennett that he had spoken with advisers to Trump, who asked that Israel not “surprise” the US with any unilateral move before the two leaders have a chance to meet, likely in early February.
But Army Radio reported that senior White House officials had been in touch with a senior Israeli minister and told them that the new administration has no intention of stopping Israeli plans to annex Ma’ale Adumim.
“We need to tell the American administration what we want and not wait for orders from it,” said Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), who co-chairs the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.
“The administration is friendly; there is no reason not take unilateral steps that we think are correct. We have to change the rules of the game, including by extending Israeli sovereignty to Ma’ale Adumim, or through significant strategic changes,” she told the radio station.
Ma’ale Adumim, a city of some 40,000 residents, straddles a ridge east of Jerusalem. Palestinians say it effectively divides the West Bank into two non-contiguous sections north and south of the city, and thereby makes a viable future Palestinian state less attainable.
The bill to apply Israeli sovereignty and civil law to the city was proposed by Likud’s MK Yoav Kisch and Jewish Home’s MK Betzalel Smotrich.
According to some reports, Bennett has refused to push off the debate in the cabinet committee. A longtime backer of Israeli annexation of large swaths of the West Bank, Bennett has argued that Trump’s term in the White House offers a rare opportunity for Israel to take a decisive stand against any future Palestinian state. Bennett opposes such a state, calling it a threat to Israel’s existence.
The ministerial legislation committee, jointly headed by Shaked and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), votes on granting government support to legislation. Such support is usually decisive in enabling a bill to pass into law.
“I’m getting a message from Trump not to jump to the front,” Netanyahu told Bennett on Friday, according to quotes from their conversation carried by the Haaretz daily.
But Bennett has reportedly demanded that the larger issue of Israel’s West Bank policy during the Trump term come up in other cabinet forums on Sunday as a precondition to any delay in considering the Ma’ale Adumim legislation.
Israel has controlled the West Bank since capturing it in the 1967 Six Day War but has never moved to annex any of the territory beyond extending sovereignty to East Jerusalem. It later applied Israeli law to the Golan Heights, captured from Syria.
The plan proposed by Katz goes significantly beyond that of Bennett, to include Givat Ze’ev to the north; the huge, predominantly ultra-Orthodox city Beitar Ilit; and the Etzion settlement bloc. Those areas are currently home to some 130,000 Israelis.
It’s not clear how many Palestinians would be annexed into Israel under Katz’s plan, but the number likely reaches into the tens of thousands.
“I expect that [Zionist Union leader Isaac] Herzog and (Yesh Atid leader Yair) Lapid and everyone who sees these communities as an integral part of the State of Israel in the future will support this bill,” Katz wrote. “The support of world Jewry and our friends in the US, who see Jerusalem as the historic capital of the Jewish people for thousands of years, is assured.
“There is nothing more appropriate that this bill to mark 50 years since the liberation and unification of Jerusalem,” he said.
Bennett, whose party counts the settlement movement as a major part of its voter base, ran in the past two elections on a platform of de facto annexation of Area C (the parts of the West Bank under Israeli civilian and military control) and extending some form of autonomy to Palestinians in the rest of the territory.
After the US abstention on an anti-settlements resolution at the UN Security Council last month, Trump assured Israel that things would be different under his watch. He lamented that the Jewish state was “being treated very, very unfairly” by the international community.
Speaking to reporters outside his Mar-a-Lago estate on December 29, Trump lambasted the UN for condemning Israel, saying that “horrible places, that treat people horribly, haven’t even been reprimanded” by the international body.
Though refusing to directly answer specific questions regarding West Bank settlements, Trump called himself “very, very strong on Israel.”
The president-elect also lashed out on Twitter at the Obama administration for treating Israel with “such total disdain and disrespect” following the UN vote, and indicated the US was no longer “a great friend” to the Jewish state.
Netanyahu has said that he looks forward to working with Trump, his administration and the US Congress to reverse the Security Council resolution, although it is unclear how this would be accomplished, as such resolutions cannot be canceled.
In addition to the annexation initiatives, a controversial bid to authorize some illegal West Bank outposts — previously postponed until after Trump enters the White House — was put “back on the table” following the US’s failure to veto the Security Council resolution, and may also advance in the first weeks of the Trump presidency.
Fearing repercussions from the Obama administration, a final vote on the so-called Regulation Bill, which would legalize some 4,000 Israeli homes in the West Bank built on privately owned Palestinian land, had been shelved until Obama left office.
But after the US abstention in the UN vote, “We are done playing nice,” a coalition source told The Times of Israel in late December. “It’s back on the table.”
Bennett has called the outpost bill the first step toward annexing the rest of the West Bank.