Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly sought to defer a Knesset vote on a controversial bill allowing Israel to appropriate West Bank land, requesting it be delayed until after a meeting next week with US President Donald Trump.
The Regulation Bill had been slated to go for its final readings on Monday evening, but Netanyahu reportedly told coalition heads Sunday night he wanted to talk it through with the new US administration first.
“I would like to coordinate the issue with the Trump administration,” he told coalition party leaders on Sunday according to Army Radio.
Netanyahu’s comments to the coalition leaders came hours after he told his own Likud party ministers the bill would come up for its second and third readings, the final votes before becoming law, on Monday as scheduled.
But members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition’s far right, especially ministers from the Jewish Home party, are vowing to move ahead with the bill’s Monday vote.
Speaking to reporters as he boarded a plane to London ahead of meetings Monday with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Netanyahu brushed off “fake ultimatums” and pinned various rumors about the bill’s status on “false briefings to the media.”
The Regulation Bill would see several thousand homes in Israeli settlements in the West Bank built illegally on privately owned Palestinian property, offering financial compensation to the landowners and staving off any further demolitions such as the one carried out against the illegal Amona outpost last week.
While the Trump administration has mostly declined to condemn settlement building, the president has reportedly asked Netanyahu not to surprise him with unilateral moves in the West Bank and the issue is expected to be high on the agenda when the two meet in the White House on February 15.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said new settlements “may not be helpful,” after Netanyahu announced he would authorize a new settlement to replace Amona, the first in the West Bank in some 25 years.
In recent months, the Regulation Bill has been pushed by right-wing lawmakers in recent months in part to offset the political fallout from the Amona evacuation.
If it passes its second and third readings, the legislation would legalize several thousand settlement homes that were unknowingly built on privately owned Palestinian land.
The bill would freeze demolition proceedings against the homes. For any homes found to have been built in good faith – that is, owners did not know the house was built on privately owned land before building there – the state would be required to seize the property from its Palestinian owners in exchange for compensation valued at slightly more than the land’s market value, as determined by an Israeli government committee established for that purpose.
The left-wing NGO Peace Now has estimated some 4,000 homes would be affected by the bill, while right-wing counterpart Regavim has put the number at about half that figure.
Netanyahu has expressed support for the bill, saying it would protect the settlement movement from “harassment” by legalizing the most common reason that lawsuits are brought against settlements.
The bill has faced strident opposition, including from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who has warned that it marks the first time Israeli legislation explicitly affirms government support for settlements, and would openly curtail property rights of Palestinians in the West Bank in a way that contravenes the protections granted to occupied populations under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
While Israel has always disputed the contention of nearly the entire international community that the territory of the West Bank is under occupation, it has agreed to apply to Palestinians living there the protections given to occupied people in the Convention. To weaken those protections, Mandelblit has warned, could expose Israeli officials to international sanction at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The Regulation Bill was narrowly approved by a vote of seven to six in a joint meeting of the Knesset’s Law Committee and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week.
The legislation — shelved late last year after Netanyahu reportedly sought to avoid any additional fights with the Obama administration before its end on January 20 — returned to the Knesset agenda last Sunday.
The final draft of the bill outlines the procedures for legalizing unauthorized construction on private Palestinian land and compensating the landowners. It also immediately freezes administrative proceedings in 16 West Bank settlements for a period of 12 months.
The bill stipulates that settlement construction in the West Bank that was carried out in good faith, without knowledge that the land was privately owned, would be recognized by the government, provided the settlers show some kind of state support in establishing themselves at the site. This support could in some cases be as minimal as having access to public infrastructure.
Under the terms of the bill, the government will be able to appropriate land for its own use if the owners are unknown. If the owners are known, they will be eligible for either yearly damages amounting to 125 percent of the value of leasing the land, a larger financial package valued at 20 years’ worth of leasing the plots, or alternate plots.
Marissa Newman and Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.