Israel Pulse

Education minister held secret meetings with settler leaders ahead of elections

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Article Summary
The Israeli settlers are exploiting their political leverage in this pre-campaign period to legalize West Bank outposts and push for the expulsion of family members of Palestinian assailants.

In the coalition crisis that broke out last month following the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of HaBayit HaYehudi, demanded leadership of the Defense Ministry and threatened that if he didn't get it, he’d leave and let the government collapse. But within three days, Bennett retracted the ultimatum. There were several reasons for the shift. One of the main reasons was pressure from the settler movement, the party’s main voter base, to avoid dissolving the government and pass a series of laws and resolutions before the elections now set for 2019. 

Al-Monitor has learned that in secret meetings between Bennett and several settler leaders, among them Rabbi Hayim Druckman, he was asked to wait on breaking up the coalition and to advance bills and resolutions regarding the settlements before this legislative term is over. One of the participants in the meeting relayed to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Bennett was told, “This is the most practical right-wing government we have seen and we have to make use of it until the end. After the election, if [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu remains in power, he may form a unity government, and if he loses because of the police investigations, who knows who will form the next government.” Of the participants' several goals for Bennett, the main one was legislation that would legalize more than 60 West Bank outposts, currently considered illegal. These outposts were established without government consent, without building permits and often on private Palestinian land. Last week, the bill passed the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and a preliminary reading in the Knesset, but it’s still not clear if Netanyahu will allow its final passage in the next few weeks — of if it would even be possible considering the early elections.

According to the bill, demolition in the outposts would be frozen for two years without a direct order from the prime minister and defense minister and the authorization of the cabinet. The bill also requires that the state provide municipal services to the outposts, including water and electricity, maintenance services and waste disposal, over the next two years. As some of these outposts are built on private Palestinian land and without authorization, courts have issued orders to demolish some of them. The bill is meant to expedite the work of a government committee tasked with finding a way to legalize the outposts and prevent legal action against them in the meantime. 

In a debate at the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Dec. 16, Deputy Attorney General Ran Nizri expressed sharp opposition to the bill and said that it is not legal and would not withstand a test in the High Court. According to Nizri, “The bill could lead to comprehensive damage to property rights and would raise many legal difficulties regarding equality before the law and the rule of law.” In addition, Nizri told the ministers, it “could even have international ramifications and expose Israel to significant risk vis-à-vis international law.” 

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit also attacked the bill, saying at the Globes Business Conference Dec. 20, “The advancement of legislation that the attorney general has determined is illegal cannot be presented as a political achievement in a democratic, law-abiding nation. Violating the law under the protection of public figures by placing illegal caravans on private-registered land cannot be a source of pride.”

Following the wave of terror attacks in the West Bank, the settlers pressured the government to take harsher steps against terrorism. Another bill was approved recently by the ministerial committee despite the vehement opposition by the IDF and Shin Bet to allow the expulsion of families of perpetrators of terror attacks from their homes to other cities in the West Bank. Its author, HaBayit HaYehudi member Motti Yogev, told Al-Monitor that the legislation is intended to move families at least 50 kilometers from their homes if they encouraged or supported an attack. 

A senior military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that no IDF commander would endanger hundreds of soldiers to expel an entire family from a Palestinian city. The risk is much higher than any potential benefit and the bill would only provoke the Palestinian public, he said, adding that the attacks are being directed by Hamas, which has been trying to incite the Palestinian public into an uprising. Punishment that appears collective and that is not targeted at attackers themselves helps Hamas in this goal and damages the efforts of the Palestinian Authority to calm the situation. 

These two bills are joined by a decision by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, also of HaBayit HaYehudi, to stop the importation of produce from Palestinian Authority farmers as a response to a prohibition the Palestinians enacted on the importation of lambs from Israel. Ariel bypassed the Coordinator of Governmental Activities in the Territories, which has contacted the Palestinians to resolve the conflict. For the Palestinians, it was a harsh blow because it affects more than a third of the agricultural exports from the Palestinian Authority and a main source of income for hundreds of thousands of residents. The direct damage is estimated at a million shekels ($260,000), the cost of 300 tons of agricultural products a day. Another security source warned that the move was an irresponsible and populist decision that stems from political considerations. According to him, the economic situation is the most important stabilizing factor on the ground and is the main factor preventing a renewed Palestinian uprising, attacks and riots, and thus Ariel’s decision harms the security of the state and of the settlers. 

Now the decision to hold early elections has made the bills into campaign tools. Netanyahu would want to show right-wing voters that he is determined to pursue his current policy. He would be especially interested in attracting HaBayit HaYehudi supporters to vote for the Likud, so he will probably promise to advance these proposals. Further down the road, if he wins the elections, he could use them as leverage in the negotiations on the new coalition that would include HaBayit HaYehudi. In such case, he might promise to get these laws enacted despite the objection by the attorney general.

But all this could change if the balance of power changes following the elections. If new centrist parties enter the Knesset, offering Netanyahu other possibilities for the composition of his coalition, he will be less inclined to offer HaBayit HaYehudi and the settlers such promises.

In any case, early elections enable Netanyahu to postpone his decisions on these bills. They might be postponed to an even later date, depending on Netanyahu’s legal situation. If Netanyahu is indicted, the first question will be whether he can continue serving at all. 

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Danny Zaken is a journalist who works for the Israeli public radio station Kol Israel. Zaken has covered military and security affairs, West Bank settlers and Palestinian topics. He was a Knight Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan and completed the BBC Academy's journalism program. Zaken lecturers on media and journalism at the Hebrew University, the Mandel School and the Interdiscinplinary Center Herzliya. He is the former chair of the Jerusalem Journalists Association.

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