Right-wing ministers on Sunday night put Israel on a collision course with US President Barack Obama over settlements, precisely as he weighs a possible peace initiative or action on settlements at the United Nations Security Council in his last two months in office.
Throwing diplomatic caution to the wind, the Ministerial Legislative Committee gave their initial approval to legislation to retroactively legalize over 2,000 settler homes, many of which are built on private Palestinian property.
Effectively, should this pass, it could transform dozens of West Bank outposts into new legal settlements, a move that is a red line for the US and the international community.
When Israel spoke of building a new neighborhood in Shiloh, for example, the US immediately issued a “strong condemnation” and accused Israel of reneging on its promise not to build new settlements.
The timing of Sunday’s vote had to do with a last ditch effort to save the unauthorized West Bank outpost of Amona, home to 40 families, which the High Court of Justice has mandated must be demolished by December 25th.
White House says Israel's new settlement activity undermines peace process
But it comes at a precarious moment, as Israel enters the twilight of the Obama administration, which it has feared for over a year, specifically with regard to this very issue.
Such wide scale settler authorizations make it much more likely that the US would not veto or possibly even support a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlement activity put forward in the next two months before President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
It also increases the risk of stiff anti-settlement decisions when European nations and other countries gather in France at the end of December for an international peace conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Increasingly, amid the international community’s condemnation of settlement building and planning, there has been a specific focus on the issue of retroactive legalization of homes, whether as part of existing Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria or as the nucleus of new ones.
Settlements are not just a diplomatic stick used to hit Israel. Rightly or wrongly, the Obama Administration and European leaders believe that settlement building is destroying the option of a two-state solution.
In the absence of a negotiating process, the last round of talks broke down in April 2014, they see steps taken to halt such a activity as a necessary move.
Israel has persistently insisted that Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, dooms the concept of a two-state solution.
It was a statement that Netanyahu repeated on Sunday
, as he blamed the Palestinians for the absence of a diplomatic process to create a two-state solution.
Israel during Netanyahu’s tenure has continued to build in the settlements out of the belief that such activity has no bearing on the peace process, particularly given that negotiations occurred under Oslo and Annapolis even as Jewish building continued in the West Bank.
Still, Netanyahu has proceeded cautiously with new construction, with numbers that until recently were lower than his predecessors.
Separately, since taking office, Netanyahu has quietly gone about legalizing settlers homes built on state land, but which lacked zoning plans or needed approvals.
He has been stymied, however, by the question of what to do with the several thousand unauthorized homes in settlements and outposts on private Palestinian property.
Since 2011, Netanyahu has accepted the principle that homes on private Palestinian property must be removed and has held that line, in spite of pressure from the right flank of any coalition he has headed.
But outside of new construction, he has not taken steps to demolish these homes, granting them a sort of grandfather status.
Only petitions to the High Court of Justice by left-wing groups have led to demolitions.
Settlers and right wing politicians have argued that they shouldn’t live in some kind of a game of Russian roulette waiting to see which home will be razed next.
These are homes, they have said, built with tacit government approval, either with funding or with the construction of roads and utilities.
They have urged that government to actualize the reality that already exists, by legalizing them. It’s a move that Netanyahu has been loathe to make. At each turn, he has sought alternatives.
His government accepted, but never ratified, the 2012 Levy report which spoke of tackling the issue of illegal settler homes. It pushed back and defeated a similar legislative drive that same year for what was called “the outpost bill.”
Just like with Amona, it was designed to retroactively legalize outposts, so that it could be applied to the five apartment buildings in the Ulpana outpost that were similarly under a High Court of Justice mandate to be demolished.
The legislation was overwhelmingly defeated in the Knesset. The homes were destroyed and the government struck a deal with the settlers so that they voluntarily left.
This newest legislation drive, called the “Regulations Act,” must undergo three Knesset readings. It is unlikely to pass into law, because without Netanyahu’s specific support, it lacks the support of all the coalition parliamentarians and most of the opposition is united against it.
Even if it does pass, it is probable that the High Court of Justice would strike it down for being unconstitutional.
The essence of the bill, which is the legalization of settler homes on private Palestinian land, even with compensation, flies against almost four decades of Supreme Court rulings.
The best Likud and Bayit Yehudi parliamentarians can do here is solicit support from their voters for making a last ditch effort to save Amona, and for tackling an issue that is close to their voters’ hearts.
They might have lit a candle of hope in the heart of the settlers for the resolution of the long outstanding problem regarding the settler homes.
Certainly, those flames have grown stronger with the euphoric expectations of what a Trump presidency might bring to Judea and Samaria.
But Trump remains a wildcard, and the actions of the ministers are likely to exact a price in the international arena.