Netanyahu tries to put brakes on right’s annexation bid

Citing Trump advisers’ request that Israel not surprise Washington with unilateral move, PM seeks delay of bill to annex Ma’ale Adumim

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Education Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset on December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Education Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset on December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing to delay an effort by pro-settlement lawmakers to annex the Ma’ale Adumim settlement east of Jerusalem.

On Friday, Netanyahu asked Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the main backer of the initiative, to take a proposed annexation bill off the agenda of Sunday evening’s meeting of the powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

Netanyahu reportedly explained to Bennett that he had spoken with advisers to US President Donald Trump, who asked that Israel not “surprise” the US with any unilateral move before the two leaders have a chance to meet, likely in early February.

Ma’ale Adumim, a city of some 40,000 residents, straddles a ridge east of Jerusalem. Palestinians say it effectively divides the West Bank into two non-contiguous sections north and south of the city, and thereby makes a viable future Palestinian state less attainable.

The bill to apply Israeli sovereignty and civil law to the city was proposed by Likud’s MK Yoav Kisch and Jewish Home’s MK Betzalel Smotrich.

According to some reports, Bennett has refused to push off the debate in the cabinet committee. A longtime backer of Israeli annexation of large parts of the West Bank, Bennett has argued that Trump’s term in the White House offers a rare opportunity for Israel’s government to take a decisive stand against any future Palestinian state. Bennett opposes such a state, calling it a threat to Israel’s existence.

The cabinet’s legislation committee, jointly headed by one minister from Bennett’s Jewish Home party and one from Netanyahu’s Likud, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, respectively, votes on granting government support to legislation. Such support is usually decisive in enabling a bill to pass into law.

“I’m getting a message from Trump not to jump to the front,” Netanyahu told Bennett on Friday, according to quotes from their conversation carried by the Haaretz daily.

But Bennett has reportedly demanded that the larger issue of Israel’s West Bank policy during the Trump term come up in other cabinet forums on Sunday as a precondition to any delay in considering the Ma’ale Adumim legislation.

Israel has controlled the West Bank since capturing it in the 1967 Six Day War but has never moved to annex any of the territory beyond extending sovereignty to East Jerusalem. It later applied Israeli law to the Golan Heights, captured from Syria.

Most experts see Israel’s policy of extending sovereignty, in moves widely unrecognized by the international community, as tantamount to annexation.

Bennett, whose party counts the settlement movement as a major part of its voter base, ran in the past two elections on a platform of de facto annexation of Area C (the parts of the West Bank under Israeli civilian and military control) and extending some form of autonomy to Palestinians in the rest of the territory.

After the US abstention on an anti-settlements resolution at the UN Security Council last month, Trump assured Israel that things would be different after he took office. He lamented that the Jewish state was “being treated very, very unfairly” by the international community.

Speaking to reporters outside his Mar-a-Lago estate on December 29, Trump lambasted the UN for condemning Israel, saying that “horrible places, that treat people horribly, haven’t even been reprimanded” by the international body.

Though refusing to directly answer specific questions regarding West Bank settlements, Trump called himself “very, very strong on Israel.”

The president-elect also lashed out on Twitter at the Obama administration for treating Israel with “such total disdain and disrespect” following the UN vote, and indicated the US was no longer “a great friend” to the Jewish state.

Netanyahu has said that he looks forward to working with Trump, his administration and the US Congress to reverse the Security Council resolution.

A controversial initiative to authorize some illegal West Bank outposts — previously postponed until after Trump enters the White House — was put “back on the table” following the US’s failure to veto the Security Council resolution, and may also advance in the first weeks of the Trump presidency.

Fearing repercussions from the Obama administration, a final vote on the so-called Regulation Bill, which would legalize some 4,000 Israeli homes in the West Bank built on privately owned Palestinian land, had been shelved until President Barack Obama left office.

But after the US abstention in the UN vote, “We are done playing nice,” a coalition source told The Times of Israel in late December. “It’s back on the table.”

Bennett has called the outpost bill the first step toward annexing the rest of the West Bank.

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