Netanyahu, Bennett clash over settlement policy in wake of Trump victory
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Netanyahu, Bennett clash over settlement policy in wake of Trump victory

Looking to delay vote on outpost recognition, PM calls on cabinet to delay diplomacy, avoid interviews, until after new US administration is installed

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting, February 16, 2015. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting, February 16, 2015. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett clashed Sunday morning over Israel’s settlement policy and the question of how the government should be conducting itself in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s surprise election as US president.

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu warned ministers that while the president-elect and his team have been unequivocal in their “deep friendship” for the Jewish state, Israeli politicians should refrain from speculating on future US policy and leave diplomacy to the proper channels — after the next Washington administration is installed.

“I ask all ministers and MKs to wait until the installment of the new government and to formulate, together with it, policies in the accepted and quiet channels and not in media interviews,” he said. “In recent years, we handled the relationship with the US wisely and responsibly, and we will continue to do so in the coming years.”

Netanyahu’s admonishment came after Bennett, who chairs the pro-settlement Jewish Home Party, asserted in a radio interview earlier in the day that Trump would follow Israel’s lead in dealing with the Palestinians and suggested that his election presents an opportunity for Netanyahu to publicly abandon the two-state solution for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at the Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at the Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“The prime minister must turn to Trump and say this mindset has failed. I don’t have any expectation from Trump if we ourselves continue with this failed narrative,” Bennett told Army Radio. “The expectation is not from Trump but from Netanyahu. If he continues on the current course of saying that we need a Palestinian state, then of course Trump will adopt it.”

Bennett said that one way to show Israel’s true intentions would be to pass a bill recognizing illegal settler outposts and prevent the upcoming evacuation of the Amona outpost, throwing shade on Netanyahu’s attempts to defer the issue.

“I expect the prime minister to give the hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens living in the West Bank a chance to lead normal lives, not as second-class citizens,” he said. “I gave the prime minister and others the opportunity to put other options into place but the time has run out.”

A few hours later, in his opening remarks to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu reiterated his objection to the bill, which was coming up for a vote on Sunday, saying it would likely lead the High Court to reject the government’s bid to further stall the demolition of Amona, which lies east of Ramallah on what has been ruled private Palestinian land.

“The attorney general clearly said that adopting the bill would seriously damage the chances of deferring, and therefore, today, in the meeting of coalition leaders, we will examine with discretion and responsibility the options before us. There is no one who is more concerned about the settlements than we are,” he said.

View of caravan homes at the Amona Jewish outpost in the West Bank, October 6, 2016. (FLASH90)
View of caravan homes at the Amona Jewish outpost in the West Bank, October 6, 2016. (FLASH90)

But after the press left the room, Netanyahu slammed Bennett personally, calling him “completely childish and lacking responsibility.”

“We will not waste our time on bloggers,” Netanyahu said of Bennett, according to leaked accounts, comparing the education minister to an internet troll.

“Seriously?” Bennett retorted. “You’re the blogger.”

Right-wing lawmakers fear that any further delay in passing the bill would leave insufficient time to push the legislation through the Knesset before December 25 — the date the Supreme Court has set for the demolition of Amona.

The Supreme Court originally set the demolition date in 2014, after a decade of legal wrangling. Earlier this month, the government asked the court to defer the demolition order by a further seven months.

The issue has put Netanyahu in a complicated position. On the one hand, the impending evacuation threatens to destabilize his coalition, which relies heavily on the pro-settlement right.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a Constitution, Law, and Justice, Committee meeting in the Knesset, July 18, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a Constitution, Law, and Justice, Committee meeting in the Knesset, July 18, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But the attorney general has warned that legislation to outflank a High Court ruling would be unconstitutional and harm the rule of law, and that he therefore would not be able to defend the government in court.

Right-wing lawmakers have been seeking a legal loophole to prevent an evacuation with a bill that would formally recognize West Bank outposts.

An earlier version of the bill, proposed by Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, was deemed unconstitutional by Mandelblit, as was a revised bill submitted by Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich and also signed by Likud MKs David Bitan — the chairman of the coalition — and Yoav Kisch.

The revised bill says that unauthorized construction on privately owned Palestinian land would be legalized if the residents can “prove government involvement.”

Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich attends a meeting of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee in the Knesset on June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich attends a meeting of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee in the Knesset on June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Furthermore, while Moalem-Refaeli’s bill allowed the government to appropriate land, the new draft only gives it the right to use the plots, which would remain the property of their original owners.

The state would compensate the owners financially or with alternative plots, according to their individual requests, the proposal stipulates. It would also appoint an Israeli legal authority to deal with the lawsuits.

The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the government request to delay Amona’s demolition by seven months.

The outpost, founded in 1995, is home to about 40 families. It is the largest of about 100 unauthorized outposts — built without permission but generally tolerated by the government — that dot the West Bank. A partial evacuation a decade ago sparked violent clashes between residents and security forces and it is feared a new evacuation could trigger another showdown.

In 2008, a group of Palestinians represented by the Israeli rights group Yesh Din petitioned the Supreme Court claiming Amona settlers had encroached on their land and demanding the entire outpost be dismantled. The court petition set off a protracted legal battle that saw a number of proposed evacuation dates missed and repeatedly delayed until the final ruling in 2014 ordered the state to demolish the outpost by December 25, 2016. The state also agreed to compensate the landowners with about $75,000.

The government recently approved the construction of 98 new housing units in the West Bank settlement of Shiloh to compensate homeowners of Amona, drawing a furious response from Washington.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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