Netanyahu had 11 years to legalize West Bank outposts and failed

Can Gantz be the scapegoat for a 30-year issue?

The Young Settlement Forum's encampment is seen outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
The Young Settlement Forum's encampment is seen outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had 11 years to legalize the West Bank outposts but failed to do so.
With so much time at the helm of Israel's government, including as defense minister, it would be hard in retrospect to finger anyone else.
But that hasn't stopped Netanyahu from trying. It has long been one of his strategies and indeed that of his supporters to transform the reigning defense minister into the whipping boy for the Israeli Right when it comes to stymied actions to support the settlements in the West Bank.
So it should come as no surprise that Netanyahu told the Likud secretariat on Saturday night that Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz was responsible for preventing the authorization of some 70 West Bank outposts.
His words delivered in a closed door meeting were taped and publicized by Army Radio. Netanyahu can be heard presenting himself as the supporter of the West Bank outposts, but held back by Gantz from placing a declaration of intent to authorize them on the government's agenda.
It was as if he thought that after only seven months as defense minister, an issue that is three decades old could truly be laid at Gantz feet.
Initially, Netanyahu could easily have billed himself as the savior of the outposts. These are illegal settler communities built from 1992 to the present, with the bulk of them constructed prior to 2005.
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon had promised the United States he would remove the fledgling settler communities, particularly 21 of them built after he took office in March 2001.
His government then approved a report authored by left-wing attorney Talia Sasson that classified some 100 such communities as illegal and fingered government offices as colluding in illegal activity.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert similarly believed the outposts should be removed. Netanyahu initially upheld Sharon's original pledge to the United States to remove them, but never made good on that pledge.
Under his watch, Netanyahu allowed for the Israeli Right to rebrand the outposts as communities that the government intended in many cases to authorize, but for whom the legalization process had never been completed.
The 2012 Levy report, which Netanyahu had commissioned, affirmed that settlements were legal under international law and recommended the authorization of the outposts.
Initially, Netanyahu scored points for deciding not to abide by his own and past pledges to the US to remove 21 outposts.
True he did not lead the charge in combatting High Court Justice rulings that outposts built on private Palestinian property must be removed. Under his watch, court rulings mandating the demolitions of the Migron, and Amona outposts were carried out, as were the demolition of homes in the Uplana and Netiv Ha'avot.
The government's philosophy changed, however, and the outposts informally became communities awaiting authorization.
Already in 2011, Netanyahu spoke of authorizing those outposts on state land. In addition, a new process was introduced by which outposts were legalized as neighborhoods of existing settlements. This allowed Israel tot skirt the international taboo, shared by the US, against the creation of new settlements.
Netanyahu in those years was working against former US president Barack Obama, who had a no tolerance policy toward the settlements, particularly the expansion of Israel's footprint in the West Bank through the creation of new settlements.
Still, Netanyahu threw caution to the wind and authorized three outposts in 2012 as three completely new settlements. His ability to keep the outposts mostly intact with an eye toward legalization gained him points until 2017, when US President Donald Trump came into office.
It was here that the issue turned. With an administration in place supportive of settlement building, those on the Right will look back and ask why Netanyahu would leave a contentious issue such as the outposts unresolved.
Initially one could argue he was waiting for Trump to clarify his policy on the West Bank. That could account for the first year. Then of course there was the focus on annexation and on the settlement regulation law, which would have erased some but certainly not all the issues surrounding their legalization.
The law itself, which was eventually struck down by the High Court of Justice as unconstitutional, however was not designed to solely focus on the outposts and more action would have been needed regardless.
In retrospect the first two years of the Trump administration provided a unique pocket of time in which Netanyahu could have done more to authorize the outposts.
He made steps toward that end by creating an outpost committee to handle the matter, headed by veteran settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein, but then never gave him the support he needed to complete the mission.
Perhaps Netanyahu gambled too heavily on a second Trump term. Certainly, he probably did not envision the electoral chaos that would make substantive movement on the matter impossible after December 2018, when the country fell into a 17-month cycle of elections without a government.
From time to time a savvy right-wing politician would note during Knesset meetings that time was wasting on the outpost issue, that might never come again.
The issue was further complicated in January 2020 when Trump unveiled his peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in January, because his map of Israel's future West Bank territorial holdings didn't include many of the outposts.
Any move Netanyahu would have taken would have unilaterally expanded the boundaries of that map. Netanyahu had a brief window to act again after Trump's defeat on November 3, a move that rendered his map for the resolutions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict largely irrelevant.
With a government in place, Netanyahu could have moved quickly to advance the outpost issue, but again waited and then the government fell.
The settlers and the Right are pressing forward anyway on the issue, even though it is unclear that any decision taken by a transactional government on the matter could hold legal weight particularly given that any action on the matter expands Israel's territorial holdings in the West Bank.
In 2018 one could have argued that Netanyahu could have actually fast tracked the legalization of the outposts. Now the issue isn't really their legalization. No one has said it, but given US President-elect Joe Biden's opposition to the settlements, it is unlikely that Israel can take such a major move once a government is formed.
At stake now is a small step forward in which the government would declare its intent to legalize, a move which settlers hope would prevent the demolition of the communities by granting them de facto authorization.
It is in pursuit of this watered down option that they have set up a protest tent outside Netanyahu's office and have begun a hunger strike.
Even here, the best Netanyahu has offered them so far is a closed door statement that he would allow for such a declaration but was blocked by Gantz.
It is way too little way too late.
One has to ask if he can't best Gantz on the issue of the outposts, how does he intend to campaign for votes on his ability to defend the settlement movement as a whole against the new incoming US president.