by Mitchell Plitnick
On Sunday the Israeli cabinet unanimously passed a bill that would legalize settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank that were built on privately owned Palestinian land. If passed by the Knesset, the law could potentially be used to raise the status of many outposts all over the West Bank to those of settlements that are legal under Israeli law (all settlements beyond the Green Line are illegal according to international law). That would be a tremendous setback to the already dimming prospects of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, and to the two-state solution.
The Obama Administration made clear its opposition to the bill. “This would represent an unprecedented and troubling step that’s inconsistent with prior Israeli legal opinion and also break long-standing policy of not building on private Palestinian land,” State Department Spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said. “We hope it doesn’t become law.”
What is the “formalization law”?
The bill in question is referred to colloquially as the “formalization law.” It would allow the Israeli government to retroactively legalize outposts built in the West Bank if the outpost was set up on privately owned Palestinian land with government involvement, but was not an officially sanctioned settlement. Palestinian owners would not be able to retrieve their land, but would be entitled to financial compensation at a value determined by the Israeli government.
How does this change the status quo?
Israel has retroactively legalized specific outposts many times in the past. This law, however, would allow the Israeli government to retroactively legalize an outpost quickly, preventing the Israeli judicial system from compelling the state to dismantle the outpost. While this law is not solely a response to the current dispute over the Amona outpost, that dispute has accelerated the motion on this bill.
What are the specific problems with the bill?
Israeli Attorney General, Avichai Mendelblit, stated that the bill is inconsistent with Israel’s rule of law, violates international law, and seeks to undermine the status of the High Court of Israel. It is an attempt to legalize a procedure that also violates Israeli jurisprudence and precedent since the beginning of the occupation that has agreed that the State cannot simply confiscate privately owned Palestinian land for settlements. Forcing landowners to accept a payment in exchange does not mitigate this, as the Court has repeatedly confirmed.
What is the status of the bill now?
The approval of the bill by the ministerial committee means that it will come to the Knesset floor for readings, debates and, eventually, votes. It must pass three readings in the Knesset to become law.
Is the bill controversial, or will it pass easily?
The bill is being pushed hard by the religious nationalist Jewish Home Party and its leading ministers, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked (ironically, Shaked, the Minister of Justice, is opposed in this effort by the people in her own ministry, who agree with the Attorney General). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to recognize that the bill is going to damage Israel in the international community and could provoke action from the outgoing Obama administration. Still, he has yielded to pressure from the settler movement and approved the bill along with the rest of the ministers who voted to bring the bill to the Knesset. Netanyahu objected mostly to the timing, hoping he could delay both this bill and the High Court’s decision on the Amona outpost until after President Obama left office, but he failed on both counts.
There is no doubt that the opposition, led by the Yesh Atid and Zionist Union parties will oppose this bill. Much will depend on whether lawmakers from Likud and other center-right parties join them. The fact that the Attorney General opposes the bill is very important, and may very swell sway enough Knesset members to oppose it. But with both Bennett and Netanyahu, as well as, quite likely, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman supporting the bill, political pressure on coalition MKs will be intense. One faction, the Kulanu party which is part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, had been opposed to the bill, but relented under pressure from Netanyahu, who did not wish to see his coalition fracture over this issue.
The bill has now passed its first reading in the Knesset. Two more readings are required for the bill to become law. The bill is not being submitted for a second reading yet. There is time for friends of Israel to try to convince the Prime Minister and the rest of his cabinet not to move forward with this bill. But the Jewish Home faction is sure to press for the bill to move forward, so the time to act is now.
Photo: Israel settlement by Montecruz Foto via Flickr. Republished, with permission, from the Foundation for Middle East Peace blog.