US ‘pressures’ Israel with diplomat at settlement hearing

Peace Now welcomes, right-wing group protests presence of US Embassy official at Supreme Court hearing on move to legalize West Bank outposts

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Israel's Supreme Court, in Jerusalem (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90/File)
Israel's Supreme Court, in Jerusalem (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90/File)

In what left- and right-wing groups are interpreting as a display of US pressure on Israel, an American diplomat appeared at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on Wednesday to listen to the government’s argument in favor of legalizing four unauthorized West Bank outposts.

Andrew Schut, a representative at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv , attended the session, during which the court debated a petition by the left-wing settlement watchdog Peace Now to evacuate Givat Assaf and five other outposts that they argue are illegal according to international law.

Schut’s appearance in court came less than a week after US Secretary of State John Kerry contacted Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren “to protest the planned legalization of four West Bank outposts,” including Givat Assaf, in the wake of the government’s announcement that it intended to legalize them.

Peace Now Chairman Yariv Oppenheimer, who was present at the proceedings, told The Times of Israel that, while Schut made no statements — he was part of the audience — he suspected that the American envoy’s appearance was meant to signal to Israel that the government’s decision carries “international consequences,” and “that as far as they’re concerned, the matter of legalizing [the outposts] is a significant course of action.”

Oppenheimer said that neither Schut nor any other American officials had attended previous sessions during his organization’s years-long legal bid to have the outposts removed.

A US Embassy spokesperson, however, dismissed notions of any special significance to the diplomat’s presence at the deliberation, saying that attending court sessions was a standard function for diplomatic representatives around the world.

“The embassy in its regular work often sends representatives to observe court cases, Knesset sessions and other events. This is similar to how our embassies conduct their regular work, not just in Israel, but all over the world. It’s also how foreign delegations operate in Washington,” the spokesperson said.

The right-wing Legal Forum for the Land of Israel protested Schut’s appearance at the Supreme Court, charging that “the very presence of a diplomat in a legal debate about internal matters of the State of Israel” aims to exert pressure and influence the judges’ decision.

“I think there is unhealthy and inappropriate intervention here on the part of the United States,” Nachi Eyal, the Legal Forum’s director, told The Times of Israel. “What do the Americans want there? Do they want the judges to see that [the Americans] are there to oversee them?”

Schut, the American official, declined comment to the Israeli press about his presence at the session.

The government told the High Court last week that it was looking into legalizing Givat Assaf, Mitzpe Lachish, Givat Haroeh and Maale Rehavam, all of which have in the past been ruled to be unauthorized outposts. The state said it would demolish two other outposts.

The notification came in response to a petition from Peace Now that demanded the outposts be destroyed in keeping with an earlier ruling that found the communities were built on privately owned Palestinian land.

In the state’s answer it said that while Givat Assaf had originally been deemed problematic, the land on which it was established had since been purchased by Israelis. The other three outposts, the state said, were located on state land and were not private Palestinian territory.

Peace Now’s petition demanded the demolition of a total of six outposts, including Ramat Gilad and Mitzpe Yitzhar. The state accepted the claim that one of the buildings in Mitzpe Yitzhar was built on private Palestinian land, and said it would evacuate and demolish it.

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