Netanyahu’s dilemma: settlements versus immunity

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must deal with the problematic demand that he include reversing disengagement from the northern West Bank as part of a coalition agreement.

al-monitor An Israeli settler walks between concrete walls used for protection at the Jewish West Bank settlement of Ganim, which was evacuated as part of Israel's disengagement plan, May 24, 2005. Photo by REUTERS/Nir Elias.

May 21, 2019

After the Donald Trump administration decided to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights in March, the possibility of annexing Israeli settlements in the West Bank began making headlines. On April 6, three days before Israel held elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced, “We will move to the next stage — to the gradual extension of Israeli sovereignty in the areas of Judea and Samaria [West Bank],” and explained that he meant all the settlements, not just the large settlement blocs. The day before the balloting, Netanyahu honed his message, stating that he had already engaged the Americans in discussions on obtaining their consent to annex the settlements.

On April 10 in Al-Monitor, Shlomi Eldar asserted that Netanyahu’s fifth government would be a government of annexation. He went on to link the annexation of certain territories in the West Bank to the various right-wing parties granting Netanyahu immunity from indictment. That is exactly what is happening.

As part of the ongoing coalition negotiations, representatives of the United Right are calling on Netanyahu to keep his pre-election promise on annexation and to formalize it in the coalition agreements. Even that, however, is not enough for right-wing settlements supporters. They are also demanding that the law concerning the 2005 disengagement be revoked.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan included the evacuation of all Israeli settlements in Gaza, along with four settlements in the northern West Bank: Homesh and Sa-Nur, north of Nablus, and Ganim and Kadim, east of Jenin. The land occupied by the evacuated settlements was not transferred to the Palestinian Authority, which controls Area A of the West Bank, but remained under the control of the Israel Defense Forces, with a ban on entry by Israeli civilians.

Some of the evacuated settlers have demanded that they be allowed to rebuild the settlements. Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council and himself an evacuee from Sa-Nur, established Homesh First, which arranges tours of the settlements’ ruins for journalists, Knesset members and right-wing activists even though the area itself has been declared a closed military zone.

On May 16, in the heat of negotiations to establish a new government, 10 Knesset members from the Likud and United Right visited the ruins of Homesh. Led by Dagan and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, the tour was effectively a declaration of intent. Edelstein, who actually opposed the 2005 disengagement vote in the Knesset, said during the visit that overturning the law on the disengagement will be the mission of all Knesset members who support Jewish settlement. According to him, there is good reason to believe that the proposal would receive widespread support in the Likud.

Among current Likud Knesset members, six had objected to the disengagement legislation: Edelstein along with Gilad Erdan, Haim Katz, Moshe Kahlon, Gila Gamliel and Gideon Saar. Four current Likud Knesset members had supported the legislation: Netanyahu (who did so at his party's instruction, but later resigned in part over implementation of the disengagement), Yisrael Katz, Yuval Steinitz and Tzachi Hanegbi.

Dagan, the guiding force behind revocation of the disengagement legislation, aims to include the move in the emerging coalition agreement. In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Dagan claimed that most Likud Knesset members support such a law, but that the ultimate decision would of course be left to Netanyahu. At the same time, however, he said he would not allow the prime minister “to hide behind the Americans.” Dagan is convinced that the pressure Netanyahu is now facing from the United Right and certain Knesset members from the Likud increases the likelihood that he will respond positively to the demand.

Past experience would appear to suggest that Netanyahu is in no way enthusiastic about the proposal. Shuli Mualem, a former Knesset member for HaBayit HaYehudi, had submitted legislation to overturn the disengagement legislation during the previous Knesset, in October 2017, with the first stage being the removal of the ban on entry by Israelis into the evacuated territories. In a 2017 interview with Israel Today, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yair Naveh had expressed his personal support for the proposed legislation. As head of IDF Central Command at the time of the disengagement, Naveh oversaw the evacuation of the four settlements. He asserted that in hindsight, the move did not offer Israel any security or diplomatic advantages.

Acting through the coalition chair, David Bitan, Netanyahu had given the green light to move Mualem's bill forward, but on more than one occasion, Netanyahu also ensured that debate be postponed. Netanyahu’s main reason and explanation for the delays was to avoid conflict with the United States. In January 2018, for example, he postponed debate on the proposed legislation in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation because of an upcoming visit by Vice President Mike Pence.

These days, the United Right is unwilling to abandon its demand. One of its leaders, Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich, had said in 2015 that his ultimate goal is to rebuild the evacuated settlements. On the other hand, sources close to the prime minister say that there is no place for such a demand and certainly not as a part of a coalition agreement.

One senior Likud official told Al-Monitor that Netanyahu cannot allow a demand like that to be included in the coalition agreement before he sees the American peace plan. According to that same source, Netanyahu promised the Americans that he will not make any major moves on the ground without their consent. Even the prime minister’s own comments during the last election campaign were tempered by his statement that everything would be done in coordination with the Trump administration, said the source.

Netanyahu’s personal and political future depends on his coalition partners. Without them, he cannot form a government and pass legislation that will help him avoid possible indictment. Smotrich is the force behind efforts to amend the current Immunity Law so that it would keep Netanyahu from standing trial on corruption charges, pending a hearing. On May 19, Smotrich made it clear that he plans to continue advocating for amending the Immunity Law, despite reservations and flat-out opposition from many legal and political actors, including some in the Likud.

Now, Netanyahu has to simultaneously contend with Smotrich's demand and with President Donald Trump and his plan to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While Netanyahu might be a political wizard, it looks like he will need all his political adroitness to resolve this dilemma.

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