Senior Israeli official: Repealing Disengagement Law does not violate deal with US

Speaking to reporters in London, official says Biden administration’s dressing down of US envoy does not mark deterioration in ties with Washington

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Visitors at the evacuated settlement of Homesh in the West Bank, August 27, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)
Visitors at the evacuated settlement of Homesh in the West Bank, August 27, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

LONDON — A senior Israeli official on Friday rejected a US assertion made earlier this week that Jerusalem violated commitments it made to the US by voting to repeal parts of the 2005 Disengagement Law that had ordered the evacuation of four northern West Bank settlements.

“There was no violation of any commitment,” said the official in a briefing to reporters who accompanied Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his diplomatic visit to London this weekend.

“If anything, there was a violation” on the US side of an agreement made between then-president George W. Bush and then-prime minister Ariel Sharon regarding construction in settlement blocs, the official added.

In a rare move, the Biden administration summoned Israeli Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog to the State Department on Tuesday to protest the Knesset’s passage of a law that will allow the resettlement of the evacuated areas of the northern West Bank.

Earlier, State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said the law violates commitments the current Israeli government made to the US and a commitment a previous Israeli government made to the Bush administration some 20 years ago, pointing to a letter Sharon sent to Bush in which the premier committed to evacuating the four northern West Bank settlements in order to make room for more Palestinian territorial contiguity in the area.

In exchange, Bush offered his own written recognition of the need for land swaps in a future peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, allowing the so-called settlement blocs closer to the Green Line to remain under Israeli control.

“They can’t come and force us to stay committed after they essentially abandoned the policy that Bush said… in exchange for the disengagement, they were supposed to accept unrestricted building in the settlement blocs,” the official stated.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves 10 Downing Street after a meeting with Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in London, March 24, 2023.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

The Bush administration did not commit to recognizing “unrestricted” construction in the settlement blocs, however. The former president only wrote to Sharon that any future peace deal should include land swaps that would ostensibly include areas close to the Green Line.

Israel has also never agreed to US requests for it to specify what it considers to be the settlement blocs.

Nevertheless, the senior figure asserted that the summoning of Herzog did not mark a deterioration in ties between the US and Israel, but was part of a regular ongoing dialogue between the countries. Herzog’s summoning to the State Department was the first such action toward an Israeli envoy in over a decade.

Asked if the government felt that the US administration is interfering too much in Israel’s current domestic policies, the official in London said “no more than usual,” claiming that under Obama such conversations were much more frequent.

“There has been blatant interference in the past,” the official said, claiming that the Obama and Clinton administrations attempted to remove Netanyahu from office.

Asked about a letter sent earlier this week by the heads of the Jewish Agency warning that the controversy over the judicial overhaul is causing rifts among Diaspora Jewry, the official blamed the opposition for misinforming world Jewry about the legislation.

“People are not aware of what’s happening in Israel,” the official said, claiming that the judicial branch has staged a mass overreach in the past 20 years. “They don’t know about this, they don’t know that the High Court is knocking down laws, intervening in appointments, intervening even in the IDF.”

Thousands of Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The official said the opposition is “convincing the Israeli public that we’re going to become like Turkey,” and therefore it is understandable that Diaspora Jewry would be concerned as well.

Speaking to reporters in London, Netanyahu said that growing refusals to serve in the military in protest of the overhaul were a “terrible danger” to Israel’s existence.

Netanyahu also shared fears that the upcoming Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen could become politicized.

But “even if I would halt the legislation, it wouldn’t help” to keep Memorial Day apolitical, “because whoever wants to make a provocation on Memorial Day will do it.”

Netanyahu said that he spoke out strongly against any attempts to use Memorial Day to political ends while he led a strong opposition campaign against the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.

“People would tell me that I was disrespecting Yoni,” said Netanyahu, referring to his late brother, Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed during the IDF raid on Entebbe in 1976. “It is forbidden to say that!”

After meeting Sunak, Netanyahu was slated to meet later Friday with UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman, also without any public statements or press conference. His only other scheduled meeting during his trip — which is slated to last until early Sunday morning — is with the Conservative Friends of Israel.

As it stands, the legislative package will — among other things — allow the Knesset to override court decisions with the barest majority, preemptively shield laws from judicial oversight, and put the selection of judges in the hands of coalition politicians. Netanyahu said Thursday night that the law on selecting judges would be enacted next week.

While supporters say the judicial overhaul will rebalance power away from an overly activist court, critics argue the moves will remove essential checks on executive and legislative power, putting democracy in peril and leaving many basic rights unprotected.

Jacob Magid and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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