Right-wing leaders in the Israeli government have seized on the election of Donald Trump to push forward bold new legislation to legalize Jewish settlements in the West Bank built on privately owned Palestinian land.
Believing the time to act is now, as the president-elect begins to shape his foreign policy, top Israeli ministers voted unanimously Sunday in favor of a bill to allow Israeli settlements and outposts that were built on property owned by Palestinians to remain.
The legislation could retroactively offer legal protection to several thousand homes built both in long-established settlements and newer wildcat outposts that even the Israeli military has declared illegal.
Palestinian landowners would be offered money or alternative land parcels in exchange for their seized property.
The move by Israeli leaders is one of the first concrete responses to the Trump election on the international stage.
The president-elect and his advisers have signaled that the incoming administration will be even more supportive of Israel than President Barack Obama has been.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and the leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said the Trump victory means that “the era of the Palestinian state is over.”
The Israeli minister and his allies view the full legalization of the settlements built on Palestinian land as only a first step. Bennett wants Israel to formally annex the 60 percent of the West Bank where the settlements are located.
Speaking to foreign correspondents on Monday, he said the Trump election and shifting politics in Europe “provide Israel with a unique opportunity to reset and rethink everything.”
As for the idea that Israel should wait and see where Trump is going, Bennett said it is important for Israel to declare what it wants.
The draft legislation was opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the move “childish and irresponsible.”
Even so, senior members and top ministers of Netanyahu’s fellow Likud party approved a bill that their leader considers ill-timed and needlessly provocative.
Netanyahu finds himself in a tight spot.
If the draft legislation is eventually passed by the parliament – not a sure bet – the Israeli leader fears a wave of condemnation by Europe and the United Nations, where pro-Palestinian voices can insist that the settlers are “stealing” Arab-owned land with government approval.
Netanyahu is also wary of what Obama may do in his last months in office. The outgoing president, many Israelis fear, could formally outline what the Americans consider a fair resolution to the long-running conflict, including the parameters for a future Palestinian state. Obama could do this in a speech or by allowing a resolution to pass in the United Nations.
Netanyahu could still stall or derail the legislation, but the clock is ticking.
The move to press ahead with the “legalization bill” was spurred by the Israeli Supreme Court, which ordered that a Jewish settlement called Amona be evacuated and demolished because a portion of it was built on privately owned Palestinian land.
On Monday, the high court rejected government appeals for a delay and gave the Israeli military until Dec. 25 to clear the settlement. Demolition orders against other settlements built on private Palestinian land are also looming.
Today about 400,000 Jewish settlers are living on 125 settlements and 100 outposts in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on territory that Palestinians want for a future state. Most of the world considers the settlements illegal under international law. The United States calls the communities “illegitimate” and “an obstacle to peace.” Israel disputes this.
In the past year, the Obama White House and the State Department have condemned settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem with sharply escalating rhetoric, openly questioning whether the Netanyahu government is truly committed to a two-state solution.
Shai Ben Yosef, a leader of the Ofra settlement, which also is partly built on private Palestinian land, told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahrovnot that “Trump’s election removes that excuse of, ‘Oy vey, what are they going to do to us?’ ”
He added: “The person about to move into the White House is a man whose motivation to pressure Israel is much smaller. We can reach agreements with him about legalizing the settlements.”
Yosef said Netanyahu previously cited Washington as the reason for his insistence that settlements grow slowly. With Trump’s election, he said, “our government needs to drop all those old excuses.”
The Palestinian government condemned the move to legalize settlements built on private Palestinian land.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, vowed that the Palestinians would go to the U.N. Security Council to seek to block the legislation’s implementation.
He called the move “a dangerous escalation in the region.”
The move is not universally embraced in Israel, either.
Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition in parliament, said the proposed bill is a “serious stain on Israel’s law books, because it authorizes theft and robbery. There is no precedent, nothing like it, in which the Israeli government authorized a law that allows taking land from private people.”
Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit warned that legislation contradicts international law and said he wouldn’t be able to defend the bill in front of the high court.
The first of three readings of the bill is scheduled for Wednesday.
Daniel Friedmann, a former Israeli justice minister, said, “Netanyahu really wanted to avoid this.”
He said the Israeli prime minister “could stop it if he really wanted to, but he is not in an easy position because he does not want the settlers to think that he is the one who threw it out.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · William Booth, Ruth Eglash