In all likelihood, the so-called Regulation Bill, which cleared its first Knesset hurdle on Wednesday, will not prevent the evacuation of the West Bank outpost of Amona in five weeks’ time, in compliance with a High Court of Justice order.
Coalition chairman David Bitan, a Likud heavyweight, admitted as much just hours after securing enough votes to see the bill, which would recognize illegal construction, soar through a preliminary reading in the plenum on Wednesday. And Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu party supported the proposal in the Knesset vote, told reporters the same day, “There is no solution for Amona. It will be evacuated. It’s a shame to sow illusions.”
Even Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, whose fellow party member Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked brought the bill to a ministerial vote on Sunday over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s objections, seems to think the same.
After all, the education minister and leader of the right-wing party stopped asserting that Amona — where 40 families live on what the High Court determined in 2014 was private Palestinian land — could escape being leveled to the ground several weeks ago. Instead, Bennett now speaks of a “historic opportunity” to recognize and “normalize” the settlements, and avert the brewing demolitions of an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Jewish homes built in West Bank settlements on privately owned Palestinian land.
On Monday, at the opening of his weekly faction meeting, Bennett defended Amona, likening it to other settlements, and to the city of Karmiel in the north, which was also built on private property. But once again, the minister stopped short of vowing to stop the bulldozers in their tracks.
“But will it save Amona?” one journalist asked.
The minister did not reply, and asked the press to clear out.
Bennett and Shaked were behind the decision to bring the Regulation Bill to a ministerial vote on Sunday after weeks of delays and in spite of pointed objections by the attorney general and Netanyahu. The same Jewish Home duo, in September, had reportedly voiced skepticism that the bill could pass, drawing the fury of Amona’s residents, their natural constituents.
But with Likud ministers, and the outpost’s residents, rallying enthusiastically in favor of the bill, they quickly changed their tune.
Can it really be applied retroactively?
So, why, if these officials believe the legislation won’t help Amona, is the issue still being framed around the outpost?
One answer may be that the Jewish Home and Likud lawmakers who penned the three different versions of the legislation are confident they will be able to save the outpost, regardless of the attorney general’s opposition — while their leaders, who think Amona is a lost cause, are piggybacking on the momentum for the sake of larger political gain and to placate their right-wing constituents.
In his fierce condemnations of the bill, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has focused much of his criticism on the retroactive application of the bill and on the fact that it would circumvent an existing High Court order. He also noted that it would likely violate individual property rights and international law. He has told the government the bill would be “indefensible” if challenged in the High Court.
Hitting back on Wednesday, Jewish Home MK Betzalel Smotrich and Likud MK Yoav Kisch compared the case of their draft legislation to a ruling by the High Court of Justice in the 1990s that the Knesset could not ban the import of non-kosher meat into Israel, but, they said, the Israeli parliament went ahead and enacted a law to that effect.
There is no legal problem here, they insisted. Everything is negotiable.
Meanwhile, Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon agreed at the last minute to vote in favor of the bill if he receives reassurances from Likud that it won’t damage the High Court, referring to a clause in the various drafts written to circumvent the court and avert the Amona evacuation.
It is only with the support of Kahlon’s 10-MK strong party that the bill has any chance at all of making it into law, so the legislation will likely be amended to remove these clauses.
Unless, of course, Kahlon folds. And the finance minister, who must get coalition support to pass his two-year budget by the end of the year and who has caved to Netanyahu’s demands on multiple occasions, most recently on the vexed issue of Israel’s public broadcaster, could be pressured to do so.
If the law does go ahead, the High Court would likely strike it down, handing Jewish Home and Likud a way out along with further ammunition against the court, which both parties have accused of being interventionist in the government’s matters.
Likud and Jewish Home’s political aims
Echoing the attorney general and in comments likely intended to address Kahlon’s qualms, Bitan — who frequently, as with the attempts to close the new public broadcaster, has served as a Likud mouthpiece of sorts — on Wednesday declared: “I’ll say this clearly, even if the Regulation Bill — which does pose a problem from a legal perspective — does pass, it will of course not be applicable retroactively.”
But while Bitan played it one way, just hours earlier an unnamed Likud source briefed Israeli journalists, telling them that Bennett and Shaked were unfairly taking credit for the bill when it was Netanyahu who was responsible for its passage.
For Likud, the political game is focused on keeping the pro-settlement right in its pocket, while keeping Bennett — that perpetual thorn in Netanyahu’s side — subdued. At the same time, Bitan’s comments and Netanyahu’s silence signal a deep skepticism that they can avoid implementing the court evacuation order.
For Jewish Home, the goal is to make political hay, show it tried, and have something to display to its voters should the evacuation go ahead to justify staying in the coalition. And no doubt, the outpost legalization bill, should it become law, would be presented to the evacuees as a band-aid to the demolition.
And if the High Court ultimately knocks it down, as Mandelblit and some opposition lawmakers have predicted, well, it will shift the source of the blame away from the politicians while giving them further ammunition against the legal authorities.
Is Amona being played?
Amona was the scene of brutal clashes between police and settlers during a 2006 razing of several permanent homes, and new fears have emerged that similar scenes could unfold in five weeks’ time — that now, under a right-wing, pro-settlement coalition, could cut deeply into the social fabric of that demographic.
And the December 25 deadline looms.
When this reporter visited Amona in September the residents, fresh off a Likud petition by 25 of the 30 members of the ruling party supporting the Regulation Bill, were gung-ho about the legislation and firmly ruled out moving.
“Even if I know there are risks that it won’t work out, I would rather go the honest route and try to legislate the regulation law, which is a law that gives compensation to the owners and allows for Israeli sovereignty, and starts to prove to the world and to us that this land really belongs to us,” one woman said. “And even if it fails in the end, I would rather that than moving somewhere else without changing something essential in the national perspective.”
That position has not changed, according to the settlers leading the campaign.
Sure, the right-wing Likud members, as well as Bennett and Shaked as the leaders of the party most closely aligned to the settlement movement, have little choice but to seek to solve – and if not to solve, then to capitalize on – this legal predicament facing Israel’s right-wing government.
But in the process, they may be deliberately misleading the residents of Amona.
And they are fueling what seems to be an illusion, with little consideration for the likely outcome: that the eleventh-hour promises and dashed hopes will lead to a deeper sense of betrayal and defiance among the settlers, should the bulldozers roll in and the soldiers come to remove them from their homes.
Perhaps, then the lawmakers ought to come clean and concede that the residents of the outpost are being used as political capital to protect thousands of other unauthorized buildings, or as political ammunition against the High Court; that they are being cast, in the strictest biblical sense of the term, as a scapegoat – hurled off the hilltop to atone for unlawful, if frequently government-assisted, construction by their brethren.
And that the regulation bill is being formulated and frantically pushed through their Knesset not as salvation for the residents of Amona, but, if makes any headway, as their consolation prize.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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