The government will be tested Wednesday by two preliminary laws, forcing all 94 members of the coalition to choose between their devotion to Israeli settlement in the West Bank — long a pillar of Likud party ideology and a key issue for all nationalist politicians come elections — and a High Court of Justice ruling, which the Likud’s towering founding father, Menachem Begin, considered to be the very cornerstone of democratic rule.
The two similar bills, authored by Jewish Home MK Zevulun Orlev and National Union MK Yaakov Katz, both aim to “regularize” the roughly 9,000 Israeli dwellings built on private land in the West Bank — an issue that has come to a head with the May 7 High Court of Justice ruling to evacuate and raze five apartment buildings in the Ulpana neighborhood of the Beit El settlement by July 1.
Legislative action, bypassing the court ruling, would constitute a resounding shift in the relations between the legislative and judicial branches.
Legislative inaction, upholding the court ruling, would be viewed by many settler leaders and government ministers as an outright betrayal of the settlement movement.
Orlev’s preliminary bill, which he has called the Defense of Property Owners in Judea and Samaria Law, states that if an individual claims ownership over all or part of the land on which a settlement of over 20 families has been established, yet refrained from filing a complaint for more than four years from the beginning of the construction, and the land was not visibly marked as belonging to the individual, “then they (the lands) shall remain in the hands of those that hold them.”
If the individual proves his ownership, the court may offer the owner alternative real estate or monetary compensation.
Katz, a bearded old warrior known as “Ketzele” and one of the founders of Beit El who represents a more strident element of the settler camp, will set before the plenum a bill called the Safeguarding of the Rights of Builders in Judea and Samaria Law. It states that any structures built “with government authorization or aided by (the government) in the form of infrastructure, the bestowal of incentives, the publication of announcements encouraging construction or the establishment of buildings, (in all such cases) the land shall be considered state land.”
If the builder honestly believes himself to be the true and rightful owner at the time of construction, he shall be viewed as such and if a different individual proves otherwise, he may sue for compensation equaling the net worth of the land prior to construction.
Both bills, to different degrees, would be valid retroactively.
Attorney lawyer Michael Sfard, representing some of the affected Palestinian land owners, called the bills “unprecedented” and said they represented nothing less than “a constitutional crisis.”
These preliminary laws, he said, were flawed because they would change landowners’ rights retroactively; would alter the law in the West Bank, which was never annexed by Israel and remains under military law, and therefore cannot be ruled upon in the Knesset; would confiscate or nationalize private land; and would directly contradict a judicial order.
Katz said he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for 90 minutes on Tuesday but revealed only that they discussed “matters relating to settlement.”
Netanyahu has been coy on the matter of the upcoming bills, saying that a creative solution was necessary and that what he planned to do in the immediate future was “think.”
Some of his ministers have been outspoken in their support of court-bypassing legislation.
Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat visited the Ulpana neighborhood — five buildings that are home to 30 families on land that the state has acknowledged was privately Palestinian-owned — on Monday and called the situation “a Kafkaesque entanglement,” according to the Makor Rishon newspaper. She said that the families living in the neighborhood were being “unjustly held hostage” and that while “there are judges in Jerusalem,” as Begin famously said, “there is also a government and a Knesset in Jerusalem.”
In 1952, when a member of the minority opposition camp and regularly labeled a fascist, Begin drafted a 50-page paper, unimaginable today, in which he outlined his worldview. On the matter of the judiciary, he wrote that “a fair trial is the final fortress of human freedom” and that in a democratic system there should not merely be talk of “the independence of the judiciary but rather the supremacy of the judiciary.”
Harel Cohen, a resident of the Upana neighborhood who said he received a 90,000-shekel government inducement to move there, released a statement Tuesday which noted that 40 ministers and MKs had visited the neighborhood and that the residents were certain that these legislators would pass the legislation and “remove the awful stain that threatens, Heaven forbid, to stain the state of Israel…and the most basic human and Jewish (notions of) morality.”
The proposed legislation, he said in a telephone interview, was “a sick law for a mortally ill situation.”