Controversial settlement bill shelved over coalition infighting

The settlements bill is meant to allow the state to pay the Palestinian land owners on whose property settler homes were illegally constructed.

The Amona outpost in the West Bank (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
The Amona outpost in the West Bank
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Coalition parties remained at loggerheads on Wednesday over legislation to retroactively legalize thousands of settler homes built on private Palestinian property, including the Amona outpost, leading to the bill’s removal from the Knesset’s docket.
Coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) tried to satisfy both Bayit Yehudi, which insisted on the measure being put to a vote immediately so it could pass before Amona’s court-ordered December 25 demolition date, and Kulanu, which has fundamental problems with the proposal and refuses to vote for it.
After Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon announced on Wednesday morning’s security cabinet meeting that his faction would oppose the bill because he did not want to “overrule” a decision by the High Court of Justice, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett responded, “Then there is no coalition.”
By the early afternoon, Bitan was unable to whip up enough votes for the planned first reading in the plenum, and pulled the bill. The next possible opportunity to vote on it is Monday.
Meanwhile, Bitan said the government is looking into other options.
“The bill is a problem internationally, so we’re trying to find legal solutions [for homes built on private Palestinian land] that don’t involve legislation,” Bitan said.
Such a solution would have to apply to the nearly 4,000 homes in the West Bank that were erected on private Palestinian land with some kind of government cooperation – such as building roads or hooking up utilities – for Bayit Yehudi to back down from the legislation.
In response to Bitan pulling the bill, Bennett moved to block all coalition legislation from going to a vote until the settlement bill is put back on the agenda. This includes the muezzin bill that would ban the Muslim call to prayer from being blared via loudspeaker before dawn. The bill was proposed by a member of Bennett’s own Bayit Yehudi party, and enthusiastically promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Further contributing to the chaos in the coalition was MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) voting with the opposition in protest of the bill – of which he is one of the leading sponsors – being taken off the agenda.
Bitan responded to that with a threat of his own: “If Bayit Yehudi doesn’t punish Smotrich, then we won’t bring the [settlement] bill to a vote on Monday.”
In Bayit Yehudi, however, Smotrich is considered bulletproof: He is the party’s only MK in the Finance Committee, and the coalition needs him to have a majority on the important panel. Therefore he cannot be punished until after the 2017 state budget passes.
The opposition responded gleefully to the coalition’s failure to reach agreement.
“The time has come for the Netanyahu government to admit its failure in running the country, and to make fateful decisions,” opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said. “The Netanyahu government is fighting among themselves in a battle on who is the leader of the Right, and the time has come to go to an election and save the country from messianic extremists who are walking us into the abyss and dealing a mortal blow to the State of Israel and specifically to the settlement blocs.”
Earlier on Wednesday, a special Knesset committee authorized the settlement bill to go to a first reading in the plenary.
“The meaning of this bill is that the Knesset is regulating in a good way the situation of residents and towns in Judea and Samaria in general, and gives hope to Amona, Nativ Ha’avot [another outpost] and the nine homes in Ofra and Eli [slated for demolition in the coming months],” said MK Nissan Slomiansky (Bayit Yehudi), who heads the committee that prepared the bill. “Israelis who live [in the West Bank] deserve... to know this is their home, and no one can knock on their door and tell them to leave.”
The panel approved the bill with nine in favor and six opposed, with Kulanu MK Tali Ploskov conspicuously absent.
In an unusual move, the draft of the legislation includes two versions: one that creates a framework to block existing court orders to demolish homes in favor of efforts to legalize them, and one that does not.
The special committee will have to choose one version before the bill is brought to a final plenum vote.
Kulanu does not want to leave the option to block court orders in the bill, saying that it is protecting the judiciary’s standing.
MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) called the compromise “Vaseline” that allows the whole coalition to slip into supporting the legislation, which she has consistently opposed on grounds that it violates international law in overstepping Israeli jurisdiction in relation to private Palestinian land.
The settlements bill, more properly known as the Regulation Bill, is meant to allow the state to pay the Palestinian landowners on whose property settler homes were illegally constructed.
It will be applied to all instances where the construction occurred with some initial nod of approval from the state, either through a ministry grant, the paving of roads, or the hookup of utilities.
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit has said he would not be able to defend the bill before the High Court.
The opposition has argued that it sanctions land theft and will further isolate Israel internationally.
The Right says many of the court rulings recognizing Palestinian land ownership are based on invalid deeds issued by Jordan when it occupied the West Bank.
The issue impacts thousands of settlement homes, and as such the Right has argued that the bill must pass.
The battle is being led by 40 families who live in Amona, near the Ofra settlement, who refuse all attempts to relocate them.
The families have said they will resist if the bill does not pass.
Earlier this week, 120 religious-Zionist rabbis published an open letter calling on followers to go to Amona to help nonviolently resist its evacuation.
Amona is famous for violent clashes that took place in 2006, when security forces came to demolish nine homes in the outpost.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report