Attorney general warns caretaker cabinet not to legalize outpost before election

As ministers set to vote to regulate Mevo’ot Yeriho, Mandelblit and Defense Ministry legal adviser say they haven’t been presented with any information justifying a hasty move

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

The Jordan Valley outpost of Mevo'ot Yeriho in 2017. (Screen capture/YouTube)
The Jordan Valley outpost of Mevo'ot Yeriho in 2017. (Screen capture/YouTube)

The attorney general and the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser warned ministers on Thursday against voting to legalize a West Bank outpost at their upcoming cabinet meeting.

“There is legal impediment to this decision during an election period,” Avichai Mandelblit and Itai Ofir wrote in a joint legal opinion sent to ministers three days ahead of their vote at a celebratory cabinet meeting scheduled for Sunday in the Jordan Valley, where the Mevo’ot Yeriho outpost slated for legalization is located.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he had submitted for the cabinet’s approval a proposal to legalize Mevo’ot Yeriho. A day earlier, the prime minister pledged he would annex the Jordan Valley if he wins next Tuesday’s election.

But the government legal advisers warned ministers that rushing through the outpost approval by an interim government with no mandate from the Knesset would not be a good idea.

The Jordan Valley outpost of Mevo’ot Yeriho in 2017. (Screen capture/YouTube)

“We were not presented with any evidence or indication of the necessity or urgency of making such a decision at the present time,” Ofir and Mandelblit wrote.

The Attorney General’s Office said that it had reached out to the National Security Council requesting a legal opinion explaining the urgency for such a move, two days before Tuesday’s election, but never received a response.

“Therefore, we have no reason to justify the decision at this time,” the legal advisers wrote.

Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhayani blasted the legal opinion in a Thursday statement, saying the legalization of Mevo’ot Yeriho was indeed a “top priority.”

Elhayani claimed that Israelis in the Jordan Valley are in a “war against our Palestinian neighbors” over control of the open land there and that the legal advisers were preventing legalization of Israeli outposts while allowing similar Palestinian land grabs to go unchecked.

Mevo’ot Yeriho is one of 18 illegal Israeli outposts located on the map that Netanyahu used on Tuesday evening to illustrate which land he plans to annex from the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea areas.

Roughly 300 national-religious Israelis reside in the outpost, north of the Palestinian city of Jericho. It was founded in 1999 by settlers who set up wildcat agricultural communities on the land.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points at a map of the Jordan Valley as he gives a statement, promising to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area, in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The outpost was built without the necessary permits, but on what is considered to be state land, making legalization a less difficult process.

While the international community considers all settlement activity illegal, Israel differentiates between legal settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state and illegal outposts built without permits, often on private Palestinian land.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu said he had wanted to declare immediate sovereignty over the Jordan Valley but was warned by the attorney general that he did not have the authority to do so unless or until he formed a new government after next week’s elections.

The remarks during a Facebook Live address appeared to be in response to critics on the right who dismissed his Jordan Valley announcement Tuesday as an empty campaign promise, with some asserting that Netanyahu could have annexed the territory immediately via the cabinet without waiting until after the national vote.

“I want to act on it immediately,” Netanyahu said in a (Hebrew) video posted to Facebook. “Therefore I wanted to already bring it to the Knesset last week, [but] the attorney general said to me ‘you can’t because it is a transitional government.’”

Netanyahu said he tried to argue the point, but Mandelblit told him he needs to first get a mandate from the people to form a government.

“So here I am asking for the mandate,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu said in his Tuesday announcement that he would also move to annex West Bank settlements, but was waiting for the release of the US peace plan to do it in coordination with the White House.

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