With crucial settlement bill set for plenum, unclear coalition has votes to pass it

Government’s future and civil rights of settlers potentially in the balance, but support from Ra’am and rebel MK Silman in doubt

View of the Knesset in Jerusalem on August 13, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
View of the Knesset in Jerusalem on August 13, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With the coalition facing a critical vote Monday on Israeli law in the West Bank, it was still not clear Sunday night if it would be able to secure the necessary votes to pass the bill that could be key to its survival.

The bill would renew a longstanding measure extending Israeli law to citizens living in the West Bank. The measure must be renewed every five years, and failure to pass it could have far-reaching consequences for settlers.

It is not yet clear how rebel MK Idit Silman of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party will vote on the bill, while support from the Islamist Ra’am party remained uncertain as of Sunday evening.

Ra’am officials were due to meet to decide on the matter. The Haaretz news site reported that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was expected to meet with party officials on Monday to attempt to secure backing for the bill.

The Kan public broadcaster and Channel 12 news said coalition officials were weighing whether to declare the vote a motion of confidence, in a bid to pressure both Ra’am and Silman. If Silman were to oppose the measure in such a case, it could serve as grounds to declare her a defector, leading to devastating political sanctions that could end her career.

The networks both reported that opposition figures were pressuring Ra’am MK Mazen Ganaim, whose support for the coalition has been tenuous, not to back the bill.

The measure has become a major hurdle for the fragile government led by Bennett, which has the backing of only 60 of the Knesset’s 120 MKs. The coalition has struggled to keep its MKs and parties in check in recent weeks, bringing the government to the brink of collapse amid a long-running series of disputes over policy positions and security tensions.

MK Idit Silman chairs a Knesset Health Committee on May 10, 2022. (Flash90)

A vote on the bill was postponed by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar last week after the coalition saw there was no majority to pass it.

The bill would renew a measure extending Israeli criminal law and certain key civil laws — such as income tax and health insurance — to Israelis living in the West Bank. Though Israel has not annexed the West Bank, the measure ensures that settlers living there are treated as though they live in Israel in most matters, without extending those same legal protections to Palestinians.

Originally enacted in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, the law remains an “emergency measure” that must be renewed every five years. Last passed in 2017, it is set to expire at the end of June.

Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas (C) delivers a statement to the press at the Knesset, with fellow party MKs Walid Taha (L) and Mazen Ghanaim (R) standing by, May 11, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Sunday, Channel 12 news said the Population Authority issued an opinion saying that if the measure is not passed, Israeli residents of the West Bank will not be able to receive ID cards or report their address, which could also impair their ability to exercise basic rights such as voting.

Sa’ar, whose hardline New Hope party supports settlements and opposes Palestinian statehood, has said that unless the measure passes, Israeli settlers will become subject to Israel’s military justice system, which is based on Jordanian law. He said such a situation had never occurred.

“It will create chaos for justice matters in Judea and Samaria,” Sa’ar told Kan last week, using a biblical term for the West Bank. “It will harm the territory’s connection to Israel and Israeli law, and will harm some 500,000 Israelis living in Judea and Samaria.”

While the Likud-led right-religious bloc within the opposition supports the renewal in principle, it has vowed to not help provide the majority necessary to pass it, pledging to oppose any government-sponsored legislation regardless of content.

Sa’ar described the opposition’s refusal as “not just unprecedented but also dangerous,” but appeared to put the onus on members of his own coalition to line up behind the measure.

Sitting at a tight 60-60 seat parity with the opposition in the 120-member Knesset, the big-tent coalition incorporates parties from across the political spectrum, including the Ra’am party. While Ra’am has supported contentious measures in the past, the party has complained that the coalition has failed to come through on promised earmarks, causing its four MKs to lose support on the street and making them less amenable to coalition demands. Ra’am temporarily froze its participation in coalition and parliamentary activities in April in protest of the state’s handling of unrest on the Temple Mount.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar sits in the plenum hall of the Knesset, on February 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ra’am has remained tight-lipped about how it would vote on the bill if the coalition were pressed.

Should the bill fail to pass, Sa’ar’s participation in the coalition is speculated to be at risk. Recent reports claimed Sa’ar has held talks with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party aimed at forming an alternative government in the Knesset. Sa’ar has repeatedly denied the talks.

According to a poll released last week, the opposition led by Netanyahu is gaining ground with voters, and inching closer to being able to win a majority in the Knesset.

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