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Justice Ministry greenlights connecting illegal West Bank outposts to power

Measure now moves to Defense Ministry for approval; deputy AG’s opinion may help appease Orbach amid coalition crisis, though source close to minister denies decision is related

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Israeli security forces use a crane to remove illegally built modular homes as they evacuate settlers in the Beit Dror outpost, in the hills south of the West Bank city of Hebron, July 27, 2021. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Israeli security forces use a crane to remove illegally built modular homes as they evacuate settlers in the Beit Dror outpost, in the hills south of the West Bank city of Hebron, July 27, 2021. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

The Justice Ministry gave a green light on Tuesday to connecting some illegal West Bank outposts to electricity, a controversial step that will now move to the Defense Ministry for authorization.

The measure could also help the government mollify right-wing Yamina MK Nir Orbach, who listed the move as one of his demands for remaining in the imperiled coalition.

The Defense Ministry will need to determine the criteria for homes to be connected to the power grid, according to the opinion issued by Deputy Attorney General for Civil Affairs Carmit Yulis.

“I welcome the opinion… which in principle allows connection to electricity for young settlements that could potentially be authorized,” wrote Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar in a statement on Twitter, using the colloquialism for illegal outposts.

A source in the Justice Ministry familiar with the matter confirmed that the opinion only applies to outposts built upon Israeli state land, not private Palestinian land. Additionally, the source said that a similar approval process to connect Palestinian homes to the grid in West Bank Area C is planned for the future, but is not part of the current effort.

“This is an important move for Israeli citizens in young settlements and I hope that the full process will be completed within a reasonable period of time, after past Israeli governments have refrained from addressing the issue,” Sa’ar added.

Yamina MK Nir Orbach attends a Knesset committee meeting on September 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Young settlements” is a term often used by the Israeli right to describe illegal outposts. Such settlements in the West Bank’s Area C, which is under Israeli civil and military control, are sometimes retroactively legalized by a process of so-called regularization.

A source close to the justice minister said that, despite the timing, there is no connection between the Justice Ministry’s opinion and Orbach, who threatened last week to be the next MK to leave the coalition unless certain demands are met.

Orbach’s “ultimatum” to Prime Minister and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett included: connecting illegal outposts to electricity, approving new construction in the West Bank, and canceling planned reforms that would reduce daycare subsidies for yeshiva students.

In addition to movement on the electricity issue, last week Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman agreed to freeze his daycare subsidy reform plans until the end of 2023.

MK Nir Orbach (standing) seen with Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman during a Knesset plenum session, November 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Approving new construction in the West Bank requires convening the Civil Administration’s Higher Planning Committee, which is under Defense Minister Benny Gantz. In the days before MK Idit Silman’s defection, tensions peaked between Yamina and the defense minister, who has been dragging his feet on convening the planning board necessary to approve building plans for 4,000 new homes in settlements.

The next step towards connecting these outposts to electricity lies with the Defense Ministry, which a source close to the matter says will create a list of eligible towns. Afterwards, it will return to the Justice Ministry for final approval.

Gantz has been noticeably silent in the week following former coalition whip Silman’s departure, which destroyed the coalition’s narrow majority and kicked off a flurry of examination within the coalition and opposition of options for the government’s future.

The Likud-led opposition continues to work to lure away additional MKs. With 54 seats currently held in a right-religious configuration, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his compatriots need to attract seven more supporters to either pass a law to dissolve the Knesset and force elections, or seven defectors in order to replace the government with one of their own from within the sitting Knesset.

The clock may be ticking for other Yamina members, including Orbach, to decide whether or not to join Silman and renegade MK Amichai Chikli in peeling off from the party. Chikli, who has been a Yamina MK in name only and openly allied with the opposition ever since the government was sworn in, was declared a “defector” by his party last week.

By doing so, Yamina declared its intention to oust Chikli from the party, which carries a host of sanctions including a bar on his joining the slate of any current Knesset faction in the next round of elections.

Yamina MK Amichai Chikli at the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Defection is determined by the Knesset’s House Committee, which Orbach chairs and is scheduled to meet on April 25 to discuss Chikli’s case.

“He has until the House Committee meets and decides on his case to form a new faction; otherwise he loses that option,” explained Assaf Shapira, director of the Israel Institute for Democracy’s political reform project.

Under Knesset rules, if 30% of a party splits off into a new faction, its MKs avoid being labeled as defectors. In Yamina’s case, this would require three MKs. If one additional MK were to split off and join Chikli and Silman, the three could form a new faction and escape possible censure.

Yamina has not taken the step of labeling Silman a defector, but the strike against Chikli is seen as a warning to her and other MKs — including Orbach and the long-grumbling MK Abir Kara — to toe the party line.

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