Will the Khan al-Ahmar quagmire sink Netanyahu’s coalition?

Netanyahu may have no choice but to risk a political crisis over this small hamlet, which could be the one that finally brings down his house.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confers with former interior and health minister Arye Deri at the weekly cabinet meeting on January 8.  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confers with former interior and health minister Arye Deri at the weekly cabinet meeting on January 8.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent 12 years during his last tenure in power without resolving his political and diplomatic quagmire concerning Khan al-Ahmar, an illegal West Bank Bedouin herding village.

Now that failure could present him with a fatal coalition crisis. That the crisis was made more acute this week by the High Court of Justice, a body that Netanyahu is pushing to de-power with an overhaul plan only adds an additional layer of complexity to the situation.

Two different continents

Visually the small tents and shacks perched on Route 1 in which the members of the Jahalin’s Abu Dahuk clan live without electricity or running water almost seem to exist on a different continent from Netanyahu’s Balfour home in Jerusalem.

Pragmatically, however, the locations are just half-an-hour car drive away from each other. In the political sphere, the fate of Netanyahu’s coalition has increasingly become intertwined with that of this hamlet where Palestinian flags fly easily, children run barefoot and Hebrew is barely spoken.

The Khan al-Ahmar quagmire is of course, just one of the seemingly endless crises that have surrounded Netanyahu since his return to power in December and whose thunder is often drowned out by more doomsday-sounding dramas.

 A view of Khan al Ahmar.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) A view of Khan al Ahmar. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

But it is a crisis the resolution of which leaves Netanyahu with fewer cards to play than others and whose timeline is not in his control.

Netanyahu will have to balance the security risk of a violent evacuation in an already volatile West Bank and the corresponding diplomatic uproar versus the possibility that his coalition could fall. And he has to do it by a court-ordered date of April 2, by which time he has to lay out for the three judges his plans to evacuate the hamlet.

He can only give two answers, that he is forcibly relocating the village far away or retaining it at a nearby suitable location in agreement with the community.

Neither move bodes well for him. The best scenario, therefore, is to refrain from taking any action, a stance he has managed to perfect since the right-wing NGO Regavim first petitioned the court against the hamlet in 2009.

Six court cases later, to say nothing of nine delays in responding to the current 2019 case - albeit not all the holdups of the last two years were on his watch - the judges have put their foot down.

They warned him that the court could order him to evacuate the hamlet, thereby turning their conditional ruling in 2018 in which the court only said he could legally evacuate, into an absolute one.

In so doing the court effectively put Netanyahu between a diplomatic rock and a political hard space.

The potential of a forced relocation plan would please his political allies but has already created tremors with his diplomatic ones, with Western countries emphasizing their opposition to such a move.

In addition, the International Criminal Court’s former chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda already warned in 2018 that such a forced transfer could be considered a war crime.

The date of April 2 couldn’t be a worse time to settle the issue of Khan al-Ahmar. Netanyahu is pushing ahead with settlement development and has a coalition with guidelines that support annexation policies in Area C. He is under fire from his strongest Western allies over his judicial overhaul plan, which they warn would weaken Israel’s democracy. Financial companies are not waiting, they have already begun to pull their funds out of Israel.

Then there is CIA Chief William Burn’s warning this week, that violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem is reminiscent of the second intifada. Israel is under pressure from the US and European allies not to take steps to further inflame the situation, particularly given that April already poses a danger from the sensitivities around the month-long Ramadan period and the Passover holiday.

A possible compromise solution

To wiggle out of the security and diplomatic crisis, former Prime Ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid sought to relocate Khan al-Ahmar to a nearby site on state land which they hope would be acceptable to the Jahalin’s Abu Dahuk clan which lives in Khan al-Ahmar. Officials have indicated to reporters that Netanyahu is likely to advance that plan.

But if so, why has Netanyahu not stated this more clearly to the court in the state’s Khan al-Ahmar submission this month?

That’s because had he done so, he would have created an immediate political crisis. The issue for Regavim and right-wing politicians who oppose Khan al-Ahmar is not whether the village is relocated, but where it is relocated and they do not want it anywhere near its existing sites next to the Ma’aleh Adumim and the Kfar Adumim settlements, also known as the E1 corridor.

The Abu Dahuk clan of Khan al-Ahmar say they have been herding their sheep and goats on sparse and dry hills of this strategic corridor in Area C of the West Bank under IDF military and civilian rule since the 1950s when the territory belonged to Jordan.

Today it’s a highly contested region of Area C that both Israelis and Palestinians believe should be part of the final borders of their state.

Israel has long considered that the presence of the Bedouin in the open tracts of land between Jerusalem and Jericho, including in Khan al-Ahmar, as a problem for Israeli development of the area. The IDF’s Civil Administration has not, therefore, authorized Khan al-Ahmar or other similar Bedouin or Palestinian hamlets in that corridor, thereby leaving them vulnerable to evacuation.

Regavim and right-wing politicians have been blunt about the significance of preserving that territory for Israel. National Missions Minister Orit Struck said as much this week in an interview with Israel Radio.

If Netanyahu were to create an authorized location for Khan al-Ahmar near the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement, it would mark the first time such a hamlet has been legalized.

For supporters of Khan al-Ahmar, this is the only just solution. For the Left, is an easy call since they believe the area will eventually be part of a Palestinian state. There are also those on the Right who think that even if Israel retains control of the area, it must equally provide for all the residents, including the Palestinians and the Bedouins.

For right-wing opponents of Khan al-Ahmar such a move would be tantamount to ceding the territory to the Palestinian Authority,

Their objection to Khan al-Ahmar is that they view the village and all the other hamlets as essential pawns of the Palestinian Authority in the pursuit to ensure that the territory becomes part of the boundaries of a future Palestinian state.

For them, the fate of this small village marks a critical juncture in their fight against a Palestinian state and will determine whether or not that battle is either won or lost.

It is for this reason, the Religious Zionist and the Otzma Yehudit parties campaigned on removing Khan al-Ahmar and it is for this reason that it remains a red line for them.

For Netanyahu, the next two months are likely to be one long game of political survival in which he must 'Houdini style' find his way out of multiple sealed boxes.

By April 2, he will have honed his abilities as an escape artist and use them to provide the court with an answer without sparking a security, diplomatic or political crisis.

If not, the diplomatic and security crises may have become so acute, one more won’t matter. Or they might matter more, and if so, Netanyahu may have no choice but to risk a political crisis and that one, sparked by this small hamlet, could be the one that brings down his house.