Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Wednesday authorized the construction of 851 West Bank Jewish homes, hours after he blocked passage of legislation designed to save unauthorized settler homes from demolition.
Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias (Shas) said that his office planned to market homes in the following settlements: 300 in Beit El, 144 in Geva Binyamin (Adam), 117 in Ariel, 114 in Efrat, 92 in Ma’aleh Adumim and 84 in Kiryat Arba.
Attias’s spokesman said that the decision to market them followed a conversation with the prime minister.
The US criticized the decision within hours after of its announcement.
“Continued Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank undermines peace efforts and contradicts Israeli commitments and obligations including the 2003 road map,” a State Department spokesman said.
“The US position on Israeli settlements is clear,” he said.
“We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. We also oppose any effort to legalize settlement outposts.”
The move also immediately sparked Netanyahu’s next coalition crisis, with Kadima Party chairman Shaul Mofaz protesting the construction in Kiryat Arba, which is outside the large settlement blocs.
News of the planned homes followed a long, emotional day in which parliamentarians rejected, 69- 22, a bill to legalize unauthorized Jewish West Bank construction that was presented to the Knesset by MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi).
The vote was a stinging defeat for the settlement movement and the political Right, which lobbied on this issue for months, with phone calls and parlor meetings.
Nine days ago, four activists went on a hunger strike in support of the legislation and manned a protest tent near the Supreme Court. By Tuesday night the number of hunger strikers had grown to 44.
Activists on Monday embarked on a two-day march from the Ulpana outpost, located on the outskirts of Beit El, to the capital, which ended on Wednesday in front of the Knesset.
Supporters of the bill, and of a similar pending one submitted by National Union chairman Ya’acov Katz, held a rally near the Knesset on Tuesday night and again on Wednesday during the plenum debate.
Some of the events turned slightly violent. Police detained two demonstrators at the Supreme Court for trying to block the road. At the western entrance to the capital, protesters tried to block the road and burned tires.
Before the vote on a preliminary reading of Orlev’s legislation, Netanyahu threatened to fire any minister or deputy minister who supported it.
Ministers who had promised to vote for the measure changed their minds and opposed it, but only after securing pledges from Netanyahu with respect to measures he would take to support the settlements, and specifically the 30 families who live in the five buildings facing demolition in the Ulpana outpost.
The High Court of Justice last month ordered the state to demolish, by July 1, the five stone apartment buildings in which they live, because they were constructed without permits on what is classified as private Palestinian property.
Orlev and Katz (whose bill is expected to be defeated in the Knesset plenum next week) had hoped their legislation would prevent that demolition and three others scheduled for this year as the result of petitions to the High Court of Justice by Peace Now and Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights.
Orlev plans to re-file his bill, but it is unlikely that it would come back to the plenum in time to save Ulpana.
Settlers have now promised to take their struggle to the streets. They ended the hunger strike, took down the protest tent by the Supreme Court, and instead have begun to set up tents in Beit El, in advance of the demolition.
Already on Tuesday night, MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) said that the prime minister had divorced himself from the National Camp by blocking the bill.
In a brief press conference on Wednesday evening, Netanyahu defended his actions by saying he had sought a course of action that would both respect the court decision and strengthen the settlements.
He added that the five Ulpana apartment buildings would be relocated and that he would create a ministerial committee on settlements to implement his policy to strengthen Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.
“The State of Israel is a law-abiding democracy, and as the prime minister of Israel I am committed to upholding the law and I am committed to upholding the settlement enterprise, and I tell you that there is no contradiction between the two,” he said.
Netanyahu reiterated his belief that the bills proposed by Orlev and Katz would harm the settlement movement if they became law.
“The outline that I have decided upon – the expansion of the community, moving the homes, and legal defense against any precedent – strengthens settlement,” he said.
The prime minister said he opposed the outpost legislation after receiving a legal opinion from Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein in support of his plans for the settlements and with assurances that the Ulpana case would not set a precedent.
Katz says that left-wing groups can continue to file petitions against settler homes, because there are 9,000 homes with the same legal status as the Ulpana apartments.
Netanyahu, however, cited from a letter by Weinstein.
“The verdict set no law and in any case does not constitute a precedent. Nothing may be construed from it regarding other cases,” the prime minister said as he read from the letter.
He then addressed the settlers and referred to them as his “brothers and sisters.”
“I understand your pain, and I share it. I met several of the families. I saw the people. I saw the children and I would like to tell you what I told them,” Netanyahu said.
“There is no government that supports, or will support, settlement more than my government. I also say that there is no government that has withstood such heavy pressures, which could have hurt settlement, and it must be understood that ours is a very complex diplomatic, national and legal environment. And in this complex reality, one must navigate wisely, sagaciously and responsibly,” he said.
Attias said the construction of 851 homes was a worthy compromise.
But left- and right-wing activists immediately criticized Netanyahu.
Peace Now said that the “outpost bill” becoming law would have been preferable to a new wave of construction.
He charged that Netanyahu continued to destroy any hope of a twostate solution by caving in to threats of violence from the settlers.
Dani Dayan, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, said that of course he was pleased to hear of any new building in Judea and Samaria.
But he said that it did not take away his anger at Netanyahu for blocking the outpost bill and supporting the demolition of Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria.
“I cannot accept that under a Likud government one needs to sacrifice homes to get homes. It is sad that construction occurs only after a terrible judicial decision, the Palestinians pursue unilateral statehood or a terrible murder happens in Itamar,” Dayan added.
He said the prime minister had misrepresented the situation because it was his government that set the policy under whose guidelines the court had ordered the demolition of the Ulpana homes.
A statement issued by Weinstein’s office on Wednesday night, confirmed that the High Court of Justice ruling on the Ulpana was based on the state’s notification to the court in May 2011.
In a press release it explained Weinstein’s position on Ulpana and efforts to retroactively legalize West Bank Jewish construction, that he presented to Netanyahu.
In that May notification, the state said it intended to execute demolition orders against the Ulpana structures, Weinstein said. At the time, the state said the buildings were constructed outside the boundaries both of Beit El and the military seizure order for the community, according to Weinstein.
The state was responding to a petition to the court that it enforce the state’s demolition order against homes that were illegally built, Weinstein said. The Ulpana ruling was also issued in compliance with the government policy that construction on private Palestinian property, which was not seized by the state, should be removed, Weinstein said.
The court, Weinstein said, recorded the statement. As a result of the statement, the court decided there was no reason to debate the substance of the claim. The ruling was not based on the position of the parties or the merits of the case, it said.
Because of this, Weinstein said, the ruling was not applicable to other cases.
Melanie Lidman, Lahav Harkov, Hilary Leila Krieger and Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.