Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu set himself up for a battle with right-wing parties in his coalition and ministers in his own Likud party on Monday when he announced his clear opposition to the outpost bills, which retroactively legalize unauthorized West Bank Jewish construction.

“The bills could be disqualified by the court and cause problems internationally, which would result in the outpost being evacuated and damage to the entire settlement enterprise,” Netanyahu told his faction during a closed-door meeting in the Knesset.

MKs Ya’acov Katz (National Union) and Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) plan to present the private member bills to the Knesset on Wednesday for a preliminary reading. But the bills can only pass with ministerial approval.

The legislation is seen as a last-ditch effort to save five apartment buildings in the Ulpana outpost from demolition by July 1 as mandated by the High Court of Justice.

Its passage could be determined by the votes of Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Shas ministers, which will not be decided until Netanyahu rules on whether coalition discipline will be enforced for ministers.

Unless ministers are free to vote their conscience, majority support for the bill is unlikely. At best, it could attract the support of half the Likud faction, Likud MKs who are not ministers, Shas and Yisrael Beytenu MKs, two rebel Kadima MKs, one United Torah Judaism MK and the seven MKs of Habayit Hayehudi and National Union, for a total of 40 MKs.

Right-wing activists, politicians and settlers are engaged in a battle to sway Netanyahu to either support the legislation or allow the ministers to vote their conscience. Supporters of the bill have also lobbied ministers to risk their losing their jobs – by breaking coalition discipline – and supporting the legislation.

Some 32 activists, including Katz, have embarked on a hunger strike and set up a protest tent in Jerusalem near the Knesset, outside the High Court of Justice.

Netanyahu has always opposed such legislation and earlier this week said he preferred to relocate the buildings, which are home to 30 families, to an authorized tract of land in the Beit El settlement.

But he indicated that he might vote in favor of the bill if Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein found legal problems with the plan. By late Monday afternoon, however, it appeared that Weinstein had approved the plan as well as other plans by Netanyahu to build additional units in Beit El.

According to officials, the only question Weinstein had yet to answer was the legal implications of the Ulpana decision on other outposts and illegal homes in West Bank settlements. Katz estimates that there are some 9,000 unauthorized settler homes.

Weinstein’s spokesman said that in spite of unofficial reports, the attorney-general has yet to issue a public statement on the matter.

Netanyahu told his faction that Weinstein would defend his plan in court.

“We are a government that abides by the rule of law and strengthens settlement,” the prime minister said. “There is no contradiction between the two. Even if the court’s decision is tough for some people, we must respect it.”

Netanyahu, who met with residents of the outpost on Monday, called them the “salt of the earth.” But he warned the outpost bill would harm the settlers instead of helping them.

“We are bringing solutions that strengthen settlement. The alternative of passing this legislation would harm settlement,” he said.

Netanyahu said his solution is possible “practically, economically and legally.”

“If someone thinks they will harm settlements, I want them to know that the opposite will happen, one to 10,” he added. “If you destroy 30 homes, we will build 300.”

The prime minister received support for his stance from his Likud colleagues, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who announced today they would oppose the bill.

But Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said he would back the bill, and Transportation Minister Israel Katz and Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom said they would return early from abroad to vote in favor of it. Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein also plans to vote for the bill.

Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely asked Netanyahu to enable ministers to vote their conscience on the issue rather than enforce coalition discipline.

“The law must be just, and an injustice should not be fixed by another injustice,” Rivlin said.

The Knesset speaker predicted a lively, intense debate over the legislation in the plenum, adding that he and his deputies will adhere strictly to protocol and not let emotions take over.

Likud MK Danny Danon called party activists to a conference in the Knesset Monday afternoon, asking them to pressure ministers and MKs to vote in favor of the outpost bill, and telling them they will pay a political price if they do not.

“Call them and ask them: ‘Remember last month, when you thought there would be a primary and you wanted my help?’” Danon told Likud Central Committee members. “If you don’t vote for the bill, I will not vote for you.”

Inside Netanyahu’s coalition, the leaders of Shas and Yisrael Beytenu announced their support for the bill but would not reveal whether they would be willing to have their ministers vote in favor and be fired from the government over the issue. They expressed hope that an alternative solution could still be found.

Kadima and Independence expressed strong opposition to the bill.

“Beit El is a very important settlement of thousands of people who were sent there by the government, and it will be part of Israel forever alongside a contiguous Palestinian state,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.

“The Ulpana problem must be solved wisely. Israel does not live in empty space. Nothing will harm residents of Judea and Samaria more than an attempt to legislate such retroactive bills that will lead us to a blatant confrontation with the international community.”

Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz said he understood the pain of the settlers but emphasized that they must adhere to the law. He added: “The bill would harm the Jews in Judea and Samaria, who are overwhelmingly there legally.”

But Kadima MKs Otniel Schneller and Yulia Shamolov Berkovich said they would vote in favor of the bill.

Yonah Bob contributed to this report.

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