Ministers on Sunday night gave their backing to a bill that would recognize some illegal building in the West Bank, overriding the objections of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party brought the so-called Regulation Bill, which is designed to avert to the court-ordered demolition of the West Bank outpost of Amona by December 25, to a vote despite efforts by the prime minister to delay, and repeated statements from Mandelblit that the legislation runs contrary to international law and would be indefensible in the High Court of Justice.
It was not immediately clear which of two parallel versions of the bill passed, one submitted by Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, or a later “softened” version submitted by Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich and also signed by Likud MKs David Bitan — the chairman of the coalition — and Yoav Kisch.
Both MKs claimed their bill had passed and it was possible they had been bundled together as a package to be untangled later.
Both bills have been deemed indefensible by Mandelblit.
The measure still must pass the Knesset, but Sunday’s vote means it will enjoy coalition support as it moves through the stages of legislation.
The ministerial panel was interrupted on Sunday night as Shaked and Bennett were summoned to a meeting with coalition party leaders and Netanyahu in a last-ditch bid to prevent the vote. That meeting was reportedly heated, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman telling Bennett he was “endangering the entire settlement movement on an electoral whim,” according to Israeli media reports.
Bennett and Shaked were said to have left the room infuriated, returning to the ministerial meeting, where they went ahead and held the vote in defiance of the prime minister.
Ahead of the vote, Mandelblit had again implored ministers to reject the proposal.
A triumphant Bennett subsequently hailed the “historic process of authorizing the settlements in Judea and Samaria,” using a biblical term for the West Bank.
He thanked the prime minister and the Likud ministers “for taking the responsibility required by a right-wing government and voting in favor of the national dream.”
Responding to the vote, Liberman warned that any new policies regarding the West Bank must be coordinated with the new US administration.
“Anyone who is fearful for the future of the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria understands that at this moment, the most important thing is to coordinate our positions with the new American administration. This is the first time that a right-wing government in Israel has a Republican president, and a Republican majority in the Senate and Congress, therefore we cannot create facts on the ground and embarrass the incoming administration, everything must be agreed and coordinated,” he said in a statement
The bill will likely be brought to its first reading in the plenum on Wednesday.
Despite Netanyahu’s reservations, ministers from his own Likud party backed the controversial legislation.
In his opening remarks to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem earlier on Sunday, Netanyahu reiterated his objection to the bill, saying it would likely lead the High Court to reject the government’s appeal to further stall the demolition of Amona, a collection of trailer homes populated by a few dozen Israeli families on a scrubby hill east of Ramallah.
The High Court has ruled that the settlement is built on private Palestinian land and demanded it be evacuated and razed.
“The attorney general clearly said that adopting the bill would seriously damage the chances of deferring, and therefore, today, in the meeting of coalition leaders, we will examine with discretion and responsibility the options before us. There is no one who is more concerned about the settlements than we are,” Netanyahu said.
But after the press left the room, Netanyahu slammed Bennett personally, according to leaked accounts, calling him “completely childish and lacking responsibility.”
“We will not waste our time on bloggers,” Netanyahu said of Bennett, comparing the education minister to an internet troll.
“Seriously?” Bennett retorted. “You’re the blogger.”
Right-wing lawmakers feared that any further delay in passing the bill would leave insufficient time to push the legislation through the Knesset before the date the Supreme Court has set for the demolition of Amona.
The Supreme Court originally set the demolition date in 2014, after a decade of legal wrangling. Earlier this month, the government asked the court to defer the demolition order by a further seven months.
The issue has put Netanyahu in a complicated position: the impending evacuation threatens to destabilize his coalition, which relies heavily on the pro-settlement right.
An earlier version of the bill, proposed by Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, was deemed unconstitutional by Mandelblit. The attorney general also nixed the revised bill passed Sunday.
The revised bill says that unauthorized construction on privately owned Palestinian land would be legalized if the residents can “prove government involvement.”
Furthermore, while Moalem-Refaeli’s bill allowed the government to appropriate land, the new draft only gives it the right to use the plots, which would remain the property of their original owners.
The state would compensate the owners financially or with alternative plots, according to their individual requests, the proposal stipulates. It would also appoint an Israeli legal authority to deal with the lawsuits.
The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the government request to delay Amona’s demolition by seven months.
The outpost, 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 the 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.
The government recently approved the construction of 98 new housing units in the West Bank settlement of Shiloh to compensate homeowners of Amona, drawing a furious response from Washington.
Raoul Wootliff, Stuart Winer, AP contributed to this report.