Lacking votes, coalition pulls bid to extend application of Israeli law to settlers

‘Emergency situation’ existing since 1967 is set to expire at the end of June; despite supporting the measure ideologically, opposition parties are expected to vote against it

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

Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar speaks at his New Hope party's Monday faction meeting, May 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar speaks at his New Hope party's Monday faction meeting, May 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The coalition shelved a bill to renew the extension of Israeli criminal and some civil law to Israelis living in the West Bank, just hours before it was set to come up for its first vote on Monday, after opposition parties pledged not to support any government-sponsored legislation.

A spokesperson for Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said in a statement that he had acceded to a request by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to push the vote back by a week, “in order to maximize efforts to pass this vital law.”

Originally enacted in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, the law remains an “emergency measure” that must be renewed every five years.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.

Because Israel has not annexed the West Bank, its residents live under the Israel Defense Forces’ military law. The measure applies Israeli criminal law and certain key civil laws — such as income tax and health insurance — to Israelis living in the West Bank. In practice, it ensures that settlers are treated as though they live in Israel in most matters, without extending those laws to Palestinians living in the same areas.

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 Islamist Ra’am party. While Ra’am has raised its hands for several contentious measures in the past, the party has taken a more cautious approach since it ended a temporary freeze on its participation in parliamentary activities last month in protest over the state’s handling of the the Temple Mount. Ra’am is currently tight-lipped about how it would vote on the bill if the coalition were pressed.

A similar tight spot was elegantly skirted last week, when the coalition reached a compromise with the opposition-leading Likud party to pass a bill to fund scholarships for recently released soldiers. Ra’am abstained.

Illustrative: Visitors walk by the water tower on the ruins of the evacuated settlement of Homesh on August 27, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

However, when it comes to the West Bank law, the coalition cannot expect any help from the opposition’s 54-seat right-religious bloc, which decided earlier Monday that it would not provide the coalition with a legislative lifeline, even though it is ideologically in favor of the law.

The opposition Joint List party, which represents Arab Israelis, is also sure to vote against the measure.

Sa’ar, the justice minister, said at a meeting on Monday of his New Hope party’s Knesset faction that the extension “has to pass.”

The justice minister listed the legal consequences should the application of Israeli law to West Bank settlers expire: Israelis would not be able to be prosecuted for criminal offenses committed in the West Bank in Israeli courts, but only in the military justice system, which also incarcerates in West Bank prisons; police would lose their authority to arrest Israelis who commit crimes in Israel, should they slip into the West Bank, and could not investigate those crimes in the West Bank; Israelis living in the West Bank would lose their rights to health insurance and other key civil matters; and the tax authority would lose its power.

“This situation may turn the communities in Judea and Samaria into a city of refuge for Israeli criminals,” a spokesman for Sa’ar said, using the biblical term for the West Bank.

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