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As showdown brews, opposition to outpost bill appears to dissipate

Finance minister reportedly agrees to support bill to legalize unauthorized settlements on preliminary reading, after Jewish Home threatens coalition crisis

From left, ministers Miri Regev, Naftali Bennett, Moshe Kahlon and Gilad Erdan in the Knesset on November 13, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
From left, ministers Miri Regev, Naftali Bennett, Moshe Kahlon and Gilad Erdan in the Knesset on November 13, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The national-religious Jewish Home party said Wednesday that it would steamroll ahead with a controversial bill that seeks to legitimize illegal West Bank outposts, and not seek to forge a compromise with other lawmakers who have vociferously opposed the measure.

The so-called Regulation Bill was scheduled to be brought before the Knesset for a preliminary reading on Wednesday afternoon, days after it won the backing of coalition ministers over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition.

While the measure seemed headed for defeat, it appeared an 11th-hour compromise by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who had vowed to torpedo the bill, may have saved it, at least temporarily.

Kahlon met with Netanyahu late Wednesday morning and apparently agreed to support the bill on preliminary reading while making no promises to vote for it when it came back to the Knesset for final approval.

He later met with Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett, leading to reports he may have wavered on the compromise.

The measure is being rushed through the Knesset in order to save the Amona outpost, which was built on private Palestinian land and faces a court-ordered demolition by December 25, but will also allow the state to retroactively recognize other unauthorized outposts.

The measure, which has been introduced in at least two different versions, is opposed by other coalition parties as well as the attorney general, who said both an original bill and a softened version run contrary to international law and would be indefensible in court.

But on Wednesday Bennett, who serves as education minister, ordered all his party MKs to refrain from holding negotiations with members of other coalition parties, and demanded that all of them participate in the vote, expected later in the day.

MK Shuli Moalem-Rafaeli (Jewish Home), who sponsored one iteration of the bill, even threatened to cause a coalition crisis, claiming that “the smell of elections is in the air.”

Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli during a Knesset committee meeting, August 16, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli during a Knesset committee meeting, August 16, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Moalem-Rafaeli told Hebrew media that if the law does not pass, her party members would no longer view themselves as obligated to vote along with the coalition — a scenario that could bring down the government and spur new elections.

“All coalition parties are committed to decisions made by the ministerial committee, and if some parties choose not to do so we will be freed of any other obligation to the coalition,” she told Walla News.

Sources in the coalition said that it was “interesting that something that the prime minister couldn’t do in an entire year is suddenly being done successfully in three days,” referring to attempts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare the land around Amona as “absentee property” and replicate the outpost on a hilltop nearby.

The High Court of Justice on Monday rejected a request by the government to postpone Amona’s demolition and evacuation.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon speaks during a press conference about the gambling industry in Israel at the Finance Ministry office in Jerusalem on August 3, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon speaks during a press conference about the gambling industry in Israel at the Finance Ministry office in Jerusalem on August 3, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Tuesday, Kahlon said his Kulanu party would not back the legislation. “If it turns out that it will be damaging to the High Court we won’t support it. The law will never happen,” he said at a press conference in the southern city of Eilat.

Netanyahu on Sunday voiced opposition to pushing the measure through before the High Court had its say. However, he stopped short of using his veto when it came for a vote before the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman also said Sunday he opposes the measure on the grounds that it will harm the rest of the settlement enterprise. However, he gave no indication he would vote against the bill.

The Amona outpost, founded in 1995 on a hill near Ramallah in the central West Bank, 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.

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