Netanyahu delays vote on reversing 2005 West Bank withdrawal

Sources say PM wants to consult with US before advancing bill that would permit Israelis to return to settlements razed in disengagement

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 29, 2017. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 29, 2017. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has requested putting off a vote set for Sunday on a proposal to “cancel” the 2005 pullout from the northern West Bank and permit Israelis to return to settlements that were razed during the unilateral withdrawal 12 years ago.

Netanyahu asked the Ministerial Committee for Legislation — the panel that determines whether bills receive coalition backing — to delay the vote on the bill in order to first consult with United States on the proposal due to its diplomatic sensitivity, sources close to the prime minister said.

The bill, penned by Jewish Home MKs Shuli Moalem-Refaeli and Bezalel Smotrich, would dramatically amend the original 2005 Knesset law that paved the way for the Israeli withdrawal from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank.

Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni, who formally led peace talks on the Israeli side with the Palestinians, said the decision to put off the vote showed Netanyahu’s Likud and the Jewish Home have no vision for the future status of the West Bank.

“It is clear Likud and Jewish Home have nothing real and applicable to offer in terms of diplomacy. Instead of running from the words peace, separation [and] two nation states, fight for them with pride,” Livni tweeted.

In 2005, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon masterminded the unilateral evacuation of Jewish settlements in Gaza and handed the area over to Palestinian rule, ending 38 years of Israeli military control of the territory.

Unlike the Gaza Strip, from which the IDF pulled out entirely, the army remains deployed in many areas of the West Bank, including the sites of the evacuated settlements.

Israeli settlers play on the water tower in the evacuated West Bank settlement of Homesh on June 12. 2007. (Maya Levin/Flash90)

While the text of the bill speaks generally about permitting Israelis entry to areas that were relinquished, with Gaza under Hamas control it relates in effect only to the four settlements in the northern West Bank — Kadim, Ganim, Homesh, and Sa-Nur — that were evacuated in the same period.

Settlers have attempted to reestablish Sa-Nur and other evacuated West Bank settlements in the past, including in 2008, when some 1,000 people converged on Homesh and dozens more on Sa-Nur in a short-lived attempt to rebuild.

The text of the bill addresses the stated goals of the original 2005 Disengagement Law, which sought to “create a better reality security-wise, diplomatically, economically and demographically,” and predicted Gaza would be disarmed of weapons and “a new Palestinian leadership will be established, which would prove itself able to fulfill its obligations in accordance with the road map [for peace agreements].”

“The 12 years that have passed since the government decision and the 11 years since its implementation have made a mockery of the goals of the disengagement, and have repeatedly proved the failures on which the plan was based, its losses, and the immense damage it caused to Israel’s security, economy, and foreign ties,” the new proposal reads.

Israel has fought three wars with Hamas since the pullout, after the terror group wrested control of the territory from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in a violent 2007 coup. The terror organization in recent weeks reached a reconciliation agreement with its rival Fatah faction to relinquish its administrative control over the Gaza Strip to the PA by December. Israel has said it will not recognize the deal and a new Palestinian government, unless Hamas agrees to disarm completely and recognize the State of Israel.

Last week, Netanyahu postponed a vote on a different controversial bill that critics say would amount to the de facto annexation of Israeli settlements surrounding Jerusalem.

The bill, which would not officially extend Israeli sovereignty to those settlements, was expected to come to a vote in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday, in a move that would fast-track its progress through the Knesset.

While Netanyahu has expressed his support for the “Greater Jerusalem” bill, an unnamed source told Israel’s Channel 10 news the coalition would not advance the legislation without first consulting the Donald Trump administration, which has been seeking to restart long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Although the US president has been much less outspoken than his predecessor Barack Obama on the issue of the settlements, the absorption of the West Bank communities into Jerusalem would likely anger the Palestinians and possibly undermine the American leader’s efforts to revive peace talks.

A US official later criticized the bill to absorb settlements into the Jerusalem municipality, saying it “distracts” from advancing peace.

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