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Netanyahu facing pressure to okay West Bank outposts before Trump leaves office

Right-wing MKs, including from Likud, sign petition calling on PM to authorize some 70 wildcat settlements home to around 20,000 people

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, tours the Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank on November 19, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, tours the Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank on November 19, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

With just eight weeks remaining until US President Donald Trump is replaced in the White House by Democrat Joe Biden, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing pressure to to take advantage of the outgoing administration’s goodwill toward settlements to authorize a slew of illegal West Bank outposts.

Knesset members from the Land of Israel Caucus group, a cross-party lobby within parliament made up of right-wing lawmakers, are currently collecting signatures on a petition calling on the prime minister to legalize some 70 wildcat settlements home to around 20,000 people.

According to the petition, the MKs, who include a number of heavy hitters within Netanyahu’s own Likud party, are “united in the position that the regulation of young settlements must be done now.”

The petition states that “it is not fair, reasonable or responsible to leave the settlements without status and the tens of thousands of their residents deprived of their rights.”

Border Police descend on the Shevah Ha’aretz illegal outpost near Yitzhar to facilitate the demolition of a pair of structures there on October 24, 2019. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

While the international community considers all settlement activity illegal, Israel differentiates between legal settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land.

Israel has in the past, of its own accord, removed wildcat settlement outposts set up without official approval.

In 2018, the Knesset began advancing legislation known as Regulation Law 2, which would have formed a Knesset-appointed outpost legalization committee to regulate 66 illegal hilltop communities in the following two years. In the meantime, the bill would prevent those outposts from being demolished and ensure that they receive full government services.

However, elections were called before that legislation could be approved, and it has been frozen since.

With annexation of established West Bank settlements off the table, lawmakers — including Finance Minister Israel Katz, coalition chair Miki Zohar and MK Nir Barkat from the Likud — are now pushing to use Trump’s final weeks in office to prevent future outpost evacuations.

The Trump administration has already asserted the legality of West Bank settlements and endorsed in principle their annexation to Israel, but Netanyahu’s backing down from extending sovereignty to part of the West Bank was a key element opening the path to the normalization of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk to a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, January 27, 2020. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

It is generally assumed that Israel wouldn’t take drastic measures, such as unilaterally applying sovereignty or authorizing outposts, without Trump’s blessing.

Nonetheless, the government has already signaled that it could also use the administration’s remaining weeks to accelerate the pace of West Bank construction before a Biden administration would likely ask Netanyahu to freeze or at least slow down settlement expansions.

On Sunday, the Israel Lands Authority and the Housing Ministry advanced plans to construct 1,257 units in a controversial new neighborhood in East Jerusalem, drawing reproof from the Palestinian Authority and the European Union, but not the Trump administration.

If built, Givat Hamatos would become the first new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem in two decades. The area’s location has raised concerns that it would prevent the eastern section of the city becoming part of a future Palestinian state.

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