Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to quell a budding coalition crisis Tuesday morning, as members of the pro-settler Jewish Home party threatened to hobble, or even topple, his government over its move to clear out illegally built structures in the West Bank.
“We’re acting to bolster the settlements, and we’re doing so in accordance with the law,” Netanyahu said in a statement hours after hundreds of Israel Police special forces stormed the two buildings in the Dreinoff neighborhood of the settlement of Beit El, north of Jerusalem.
Settler demonstrators had barricaded themselves in an attempt to prevent the implementation of a High Court of Justice decision ordering the demolition of the structures, and some 50 were detained after scuffles with police.
“Our stance regarding the houses in Beit El is clear,” Netanyahu continued. “We are opposed to demolishing them and are pursuing judicial courses to prevent such a step. I will request that the government’s stance, to the effect that the planning process at the site has been concluded and that there is thus no need to demolish the houses, will be brought before the High Court of Justice as well.”
The human rights group Yesh Din had filed the case with the High Court to get the neighborhood — named after its developer, Meir Dreinoff — demolished on the grounds that it was situated on privately owned Palestinian land.
A senior defense official said Tuesday morning that the status of the Dreinoff neighborhood was still up in the air, and that the state would only demolish the structures if the Supreme Court turned back appeals against its own decision.
“Since the construction of 24 housing units at the site was approved by the Civil Administration, and following residents’ appeal to the High Court of Justice on the matter, in an effort to prevent the demolition, it will only be carried out if the High Court orders it,” the official said. “We’re still in the midst of a judicial process.”
Despite the assurances that the court’s decision to demolish the buildings was not a fait accompli, ministers and lawmakers on the right flank of Netanyahu’s coalition – most of them members of the Jewish Home party – reacted with indignation to the evacuation of the site.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads Jewish Home, invoked the pullout from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, which saw thousands of Israeli settlers removed from their homes.
“Ten years on from the disengagement, someone has forgotten that, this time around, the nationalist camp possesses public and political power,” he said in a statement that also singled out Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon for excoriation over his failure “to soothe” the situation.
Ya’alon, for his part, said he was “opposed” to the slated demolition and promised that he would do his utmost to avert it.
Bennett, according to the statement, spoke with Netanyahu and demanded he announce that the government had no intention of carrying out the court’s demolition order.
Other members of Bennett’s party issued more pugnacious statements, including Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who, in an interview with Israel Radio, would not rule out the option of bolting the coalition should the demolition go ahead.
Knesset member Moti Yogev, like Ariel a member of the hardline Tkuma faction within Jewish Home, also threatened to dismantle Netanyahu’s coalition, saying, “If the Dreinoff houses are destroyed, there will be courts in Israel but there may not be a government.”
The coalition currently features a razor-thin 61-59 majority, so it could tumble down if even part of one of its constituent parties were to bolt.
Earlier this month, the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration, which manages governmental matters in the West Bank, retroactively approved the structures, but the Supreme Court rejected the motion on Sunday.
Jewish Home Knesset members party and settlement leaders sharply criticized Netanyahu earlier this month over reports of a de facto West Bank construction freeze, threatening in a letter to Likud members to impose sanctions on the government.
The letter was penned after an emergency meeting last week, convened in response to claims that the prime minister had decided to freeze settlement development in the West Bank and in light of the Supreme Court’s decision to demolish the Dreinoff neighborhood.
The threat to sabotage Netanyahu’s coalition was reiterated Tuesday by another Jewish Home MK, Bezalel Smotrich, who said in a tweet that “the government won’t topple, but it is certainly possible that it won’t pass any more motions in this session,” which ends in August.
Criticism of the evacuation of the buildings wasn’t limited to the Jewish Home party, however.
Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin of Netanyahu’s Likud party said that he condemned “the nocturnal evacuation” of the settlers, and called on Ya’alon to complete the process of retroactively approving the construction of the buildings.
“Nothing is more absurd than demolishing buildings that can be rebuilt one minute later,” he said in a statement. “These days, when we painfully commemorate the expulsion from Gush Katif [in the Gaza Strip] and northern Samaria [in the West Bank], are a time to build up, not a time to destroy.”
Avigdor Liberman, a former foreign minister who heads the hawkish opposition party Yisrael Beytenu, accused Netanyahu of pursuing “left-wing” policies, and urged Jewish Home to jump ship and join him in a “nationalist opposition, so that further down the line it will be possible to establish a truly nationalist government, one that will get busy building rather than demolishing.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.