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Bennett, Netanyahu spar over ‘credit’ for bid to delay outpost demolition

State to request six-month postponement of dismantlement of Amona, a 40-family settlement built on Palestinian land

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen with then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on August 30, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen with then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on August 30, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett locked horns Thursday over which of them deserved the credit for an initiative to delay the planned demolition of the West Bank Amona outpost.

Following an agreement between the prime minister, the justice and defense ministers and the attorney general, the state will request a six month stay in the High Court decision to dismantle the illegal settlement, the Prime Minister’s Office announced.

Bennett claimed that the decision was made after a meeting he held with Netanyahu on Wednesday night. He said that he had threatened to pull his eight-seat party out of the coalition — a move that would have brought down the government — if an agreement on a delay was not reached.

But Netanyahu said that the decision had been made before his meeting with Bennett and that the “spin” surrounding the issue was “damaging the process.”

This May 18, 2016 photo shows buildings in Amona, an Israeli outpost in the West Bank, east of the Palestinian city of Ramallah. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
This May 18, 2016 photo shows buildings in Amona, an Israeli outpost in the West Bank, east of the Palestinian city of Ramallah. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Amona, 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 a 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.

Last week Bennett urged Israel to make “sacrifices” to extend its sovereignty over the West Bank.

The Jewish Home party leader made the appeal for annexation a day after Obama administration officials upbraided Israel for plans to build up to 300 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Shiloh to compensate homeowners in nearby Amona ahead of the court-ordered evacuation and demolition.

The White House last week accused Israel of a betrayal of trust over the new plans. “We did receive public assurances from the Israeli government that contradict this announcement,” said press secretary Josh Earnest. “I guess when we’re talking about how good friends treat one another, that’s a source of serious concern as well.”

Justice Minsiter Ayelet Shaked, Bennett’s deputy in the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, said the US should focus its condemnation on Syria “rather than criticizing where Israel builds houses.”

“When the Middle East is in flames, when on the borders of Jordan and Syria dozens of men, women and children are slaughtered,” making a statement like this “over a decision by the Defense Ministry to build a few dozen homes for the residents of Amona is completely out of proportion,” she told Army Radio.

“I think we need to build in Judea and Samaria,” she said, using the biblical term for the West Bank.

In September the Defense Ministry Civil Administration’s Planning Authority approved 98 homes to be built to replace the slated-to-be-razed Amona outpost. An additional 200 units were scheduled to be approved by the authority at a later date, according to the report.

In a response following the US statements, Israel’s Foreign Ministry contended that the construction was not a new settlement.

“The 98 housing units approved in Shiloh do not constitute a ‘new settlement,’” the ministry said in a statement. “This housing will be built on state land in the existing settlement of Shiloh and will not change its municipal boundary or geographic footprint.”

The ministry also reiterated Israel’s stance that the settlements are not the main cause of the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.

“The real obstacle to peace is not the settlements – a final status issue that can and must be resolved in negotiations between the parties — but the persistent Palestinian rejection of a Jewish state in any boundaries,” the statement said.

AFP contributed to this report.

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