The Supreme Court ruled that Israel has until July 1 to abandon a row of apartment buildings constructed on land owned by Palestinians in the neighborhood of Ulpana on the fringe of the sizable settlement Beit El. Several members of Netanyahu''s government and more back benchers of Likud said they would vote for a legislative proposal meant to sidestep the Court''s ruling. The key component of the proposal was that Palestinians who did not claim ownership during a specific period of time from construction said to be on their land would lose their rights to the land.
The proposal had several features that upset the lawyers. It would be retroactive and directed against a decision of the Supreme Court, affirmed in an appeal, and it would have the Knesset imposing Israeli law on what many consider to be "occupied territory." While Israel has ruled much of the area since 1967, it has done so by a combination of military government and the remnants of Turkish and Jordanian laws. There is an Israeli position that the territory is "disputed," rather than "occupied". The worthy countries of the world, along with all the unworthies prefer the label "occupied." However, with anything resembling a peace process dormant for most of 45 years, the semantics are of questionable value. Israel does not ignore the opinions of important others, but it also does not ignore its own settlement constituency. Recent governments have pursued a modest policy of expanding construction in established communities.
Prime Minister Netanyahu set himself in opposition to the proposal, saying that it would cost too much in lost international support, and would violate the status of the Supreme Court in a country committed to the rule of law.
As the time for voting in the Knesset approached, the Prime Minister threatened to dismiss from their administrative posts any minister or deputy minister who voted for the proposal. He left open the possibility of abstaining. As a sweetener to the settlers and their supporters, he claimed that no imaginable government would be more friendly to the settlers than his. He would move the contested buildings, and--to show where his heart was and to combat Peace Now and all the other anti-settler activists--he would approve the construction of more than 850 new apartments in Beit El and other settlements throughout the West Bank.
Residents of Ulpana along with supporters from elsewhere in Beit El and throughout the West Bank began a two-day march toward the Knesset, meant to arrive in advance of the vote.
The drama of who would vote, and how, were exciting enough for Israel Radio to broadcast live from the Knesset.
As it turned out, no minister or deputy minister voted in favor of the proposal. All those who had indicated their full support for Ulpana and the settler movement either said that Netanyahu''s compromise was the best attainable, or said nothing and stayed away from the Knesset. The vote was 22 in favor, 69 opposed.
So Bibi won this round, and his supercoalition remains intact.
Now for the buts
The first of several buts is that the leader of Jewish Home-New National Religious Party, a tiny group of 3 that used to be the more serious National Religious Party, threatened to leave the government and continue the struggle against a Prime Minister who could no longer be relied upon to look after settler interests.
A coalition of 94 MKs could overlook the departure of three, but settlers and their friends make up a substantial block of Likud voters. There is an aspiring leader of the Prime Minister''s party who is even more extreme than the MKs of Jewish Home-New National Religious Party, and who has approached a quarter of the votes in several efforts to take Likud leadership from Netanyahu.
Somewhere in the buts is the authority of the Defense Minister to approve new construction in the West Bank. He is known for a low level of enthusiasm about expanding settlements.
Another but is that the US State Department required less than 24 hours to remind Israel and the world that it "doesn''t accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,"and that “continued Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank undermines peace efforts and contradicts Israeli commitments and obligations including the 2003 road map.”
A but that works in favor of Israel is that the same State Department made another pronouncement on the same day that Bashar al-Assad must observe the cease fire brokered by Kofi Annan.
Yet another but is that the Prime Minister''s commitment to move the apartment buildings at issue might not survive the surveys of engineers, the money guardians in the Finance Ministry, and legal advisers who have already mentioned problems about the plots where the buildings might be relocated.
More buts concern the looming date of July 1. Will the residents of Ulpana go peacefully to the trailers meant to be their temporary homes? And will anti-settlement activists and the Supreme Court remain quiet while the government dithers over the Prime Minister''s proposal to relocate buildings, said to be equivalent to the supertanker he ordered to fight a forest fire, that was less appropriate for the job than smaller and cheaper planes.
Another but concerns the fate of that land under the buildings of Ulpana said by the Supreme Court to be owned by Palestinians. Chances are it will remain vacant, with nothing more than a pile of construction debris left over from whatever happens to the present buildings. Security personnel will not be receptive to Palestinian housing or other activity so close to Beit El.
And what about the estimated 900 other housing units said to be built on privately owned Palestinian land? Anti-settlement Jewish activists and Palestinians claimants are somewhere in a line waiting their turn for a day in Israeli courts.
Pro-settlement activists and officials are said to be learning from their tactical mistakes in trying to defend Ulpana. A proposal that does not try to undue a court decision already made, skirts around the problem of the Knesset enacting a law to govern the West Bank, and offers compensation to Palestinians able to prove ownership might do something to protect those 900 or so other problematic Jewish homes.
The argument is widely heard that Israel should not violate Palestinians'' rights of property ownership. Yet no right is absolute. Americans who remember restrictive covenants should recognize that the refusal to consider to selling to someone on account of race, religion, or national origin compromises one''s claim of an absolute right to property. In the case the West Bank, individuals face a law of the Palestine Authority prohibiting their sale of land to Jews, and a death penalty by way of punishment.
The result is convoluted property transactions in the Wild East of Israel, where buyers pay high sums to a chain of sellers and buyers, some of them overseas, meant to mask the intention of all the Palestinians in the chain. At the end of the process, one or another Palestinian is certain to claim that key documents were forged, and that the real owner did not agree to sell.
The muddle, confusion, and deception does not lend itself to clear determinations of an appropriate purchase, clear title, or the lack of what honest civil rights advocates would call a process free of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.