As peace talks plow on, right tries to make a legislative stand

Knesset bills that seek to annex or strengthen Israel’s hold over portions of the West Bank are gaining support among lawmakers

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

A view of the Jordan Valley (CC-BY heatkernel/Flickr/File)
A view of the Jordan Valley (CC-BY heatkernel/Flickr/File)

To gauge from media leaks and the pace of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visits to the region, the much-derided US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians seem nevertheless to be advancing steadily.

That, at least, is the view of many of Israel’s right-leaning parliamentarians, both supporters and detractors of the talks, who are slowly but steadily beginning to believe the talks may bear fruit and are looking for ways to influence their outcome. The result has been a growing interest in legislation as a way to shore up — and even outright declare — what the lawmakers believe should be the outcome of talks. That includes legislating Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank.

On Tuesday this week, in the wake of a series of leaks about US proposals to enhance security measures in the Jordan Valley in order to allow Israel to withdraw from the area, MK Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) proposed a bill to apply Israeli civil law, and in effect annex, the strategically significant border region.

Formally titled “The Bill to Apply Israeli Law to the Jordan Valley 5774-2013,” the measure would place the region under Israeli law rather than its current legal status as a captured territory administered by the IDF. The bill is nearly identical to the 1981 Golan Heights Bill, which applied Israeli civil law and effectively annexed the Syrian border region to Israel. While the international community refused to recognize Israel’s unilateral annexation of the Golan, under Israeli law it is treated as sovereign Israeli territory.

MK Motti Yogev of the Jewish Home party (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Motti Yogev of the Jewish Home party (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Jordan Valley bill quickly won the support this week of some of the Knesset’s most influential figures, including Coalition Chairman Yariv Levin (Likud), Law Committee Chairman David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu), former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud), Jewish Home faction chair Ayelet Shaked, former Shas chairman Eli Yishai, and at least 13 other lawmakers.

To be sure, even proponents of the bill acknowledge it stands little chance of passing into law. Since it impinges on issues being discussed in peace talks, and could thus limit the maneuvering room of Israeli negotiators, it will face decisive opposition from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and other top officials and power brokers.

But the bill is only the latest in a series of bills that seek to extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. The bills are all piecemeal measures, either extending all Israeli civil law over a small part of the West Bank, or a small measure of Israeli law over the entire territory.

Orit Strock (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Orit Strock (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Earlier this year, MK Orit Strock (Jewish Home) proposed a bill that would extend the Women’s Labor Law, which grants Israeli women certain labor protections such as maternity leave, to the West Bank. Strock noted that women who take maternity leave in West Bank settlements can be fired for doing so because the territory does not fall under Israeli civil laws that prevent such abuses.

Indeed, Strock’s bill would have granted these protections to Palestinian women employed by Israelis in the West Bank, as well. It was a measure to protect women, she argued, and the bill’s supporters were not limited to the right.

But the bill was ultimately felled by Netanyahu, who on September 1 announced a cabinet decision that a solution would be found to the inequality of labor rights in the West Bank. The prime minister made a point of not publicly opposing the legislative route, but nevertheless ordered the IDF Central Command, as the legal administrator of the territory, to issue a military order applying the provisions of the Women’s Labor Law to the West Bank — thus extending the law’s protections to settlers and their Palestinian employees without taking a step that could have been interpreted as an expansion of Israeli claims to sovereignty over the area.

The government decision also promised to extend all other Israeli laws related to labor protections to the West Bank by January 1, 2014, a deadline “that will clearly not be met,” Strock told The Times of Israel on Friday.

While government attorneys are unlikely to successfully apply all the relevant laws through military directives by the deadline set in the September 1 cabinet decision, the measures are expected to pass eventually – not as legislation, but as military directives.

Though the protections themselves are being extended to the West Bank, Strock and others are dissatisfied. Chief among this group is Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who is simultaneously the minister responsible for the implementation of labor laws and the political system’s chief advocate for the expansion of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.

There are already plans underway for new bills that would seek to apply other civil laws to the West Bank, including one that would extend the Public Libraries Law empowering local governments to create public libraries, the Disabled Rights Law and other measures.

Together with MK Levin, who co-chairs with Strock the Caucus for the Land of Israel, “we intend to propose more bills dealing directly with applying Israeli sovereignty [to the West Bank],” she said Friday.

Some of them are explicit. The explanatory preface to this week’s Jordan Valley bill notes bluntly: “The future of the Jordan Valley begins in the Israeli consciousness. Israel must decide to apply its sovereignty to this broad region, which has a relatively small Palestinian population, and to say openly: ‘The Jordan Valley will remain under Israeli sovereignty forever.’”

But others are more circumspect.

The bills dealing with labor rights and other civil matters “are about individual rights, not national or diplomatic questions,” Strock insisted.

Indeed, she noted, some Israeli laws were extended to the West Bank years ago. The West Bank’s Israeli population “pays taxes by force of legislation [as opposed to a military directive]. We are drafted into the IDF by legislation, not a military directive. We must obey traffic laws by legislation. So there is nothing new here.”

In the end, Strock said, the new bills are about recognizing the reality on the ground. “All we’re trying to say is that [the West Bank’s Jews] have lived here for 45 years. Our young people who are getting drafted this year — not only were they born in Judea and Samaria, so were their parents.”

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