Knesset rejects ‘land grab’ bill; settlements expand anyway

Updated: The Knesset on Wednesday voted down a bill called the “Settlement Arrangement Law,” a motion tailored to legalize settlement areas and outposts in the West Bank facing legal challenges from Palestinians who claim to own the land privately. The vote failed (69 against, 22 in favor) despite severe pressure from the right this week, and following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s threat to fire any government minister who supports the bill. On Tuesday the Attorney General approved a compromise plan offered by Netanyahu, which ensures the future of settlement expansion in the West Bank.

In a fierce legislative battle to win state approval for settlement expansion, lawmakers of the far-right were campaigning hard for the “Settlement Arrangement Law.” The law would retroactively legalize five buildings and their 30 apartment units in a neighborhood of the West Bank settlement of Beit El called Givat Ha’ulpana (or Ulpana), which the Supreme Court has  ordered demolished because they are built on private Palestinian land.

The prime minister opposed the bill, warning that it could harm Israel’s image abroad and paying a sort of grudging respect to the Supreme Court decision. He proposed instead an 11th hour compromise by which the houses would be physically relocated to a nearby part of Beit El. In other words, his compromise plan to relocate one tiny strip within the settlement would set a precedent for preserving and strengthening West Bank settlements in the long run.

The Attorney General approved Netanyahu’s plan, which not only involves the re-location of the buildings to a former military base at Beit El at cost of roughly NIS 14 million (approximately $3.8 million), but in addition the construction of 300 new housing units (reports late on Wednesday say that the prime minister is now offering 850 new units). More importantly, the plan involves advancing what is being called a “mechanism” for preventing similar legal claims against settlements in the future. Also on Wednesday, Netanyahu bowed to another demand of the right and formed a new committee to oversee settlement construction to diminish the authority of his defense minister, Ehud Barak. Netanyahu will head the committee himself.

Over the last few days, there have been vicious arguments within the right camp – with extremists like MK Yaakov Katz (Katzele) lashing out at democratically-inclined right-winger Benny Begin who dared to imagine complying with the court. The far-right parties have threatened legislative reprisals and supporters have launched a hunger strike.

Both the government and the Knesset have been actively seeking to preserve settlements and legalize such construction in Ulpana and other areas, through an aggressive legislative strategy designed to circumvent the Court’s decision. In late March, the far-right MKs (from Habayit Hayehudi and Likud) formulated the bill which was thought to have little chance of passing.   In a move the human rights organization Yesh Din called “unprecedented,” the state petitioned the Court in April to re-consider the case; the court rejected the petition. Also in April, the justice minister prepared a bill for a “Basic Law,” (Israel’s stand-in for a constitution) that would allow the Knesset to override Supreme Court rulings – thus threatening to tamper with the entire legal and political system, at least partly for this purpose.

The latter waned, but over the last week the Knesset has debated the “Settlement Arrangement” bill. The bill would legalize settlements on land where 20 or more families live, over which no one has claimed ownership in the courts in the four years since the establishment of the settlement (Hebrew version). A related bill basically says that if a settlement was established with any form of state assistance, it is to be considered state property; and if a person felt himself in good faith to be the owner when establishing the settlement – well, you guessed it – he is.

****** The spectacle has crossed a red line for me in terms of Israeli democracy.

Never have I witnessed such a legislative onslaught so finely tailored to negate the decision of the independent Supreme Court through laws meant to apply retroactively.

I have rarely heard such absurd statements made in the name of the Israeli public: settler representatives repeatedly invoke the mantra that the public cannot tolerate the evacuation of those 30 families. In fact, public support for dismantling settlements as part of an agreement has been climbing in recent years, and in 2010 reached nearly 60%. That assumes an agreement – but this is the same Israeli public that survived the 2005 unilateral dismantling of settlements in Gaza and the evacuation of Amona in 2006. So just what “public” are the settlers referring to?

Approximately 100 people demonstrated near the Knesset Monday night in support of the bill, according to radio reports, and a few hundred on Tuesday. By comparison, over ten thousand non-settler Israelis demonstrated in cities across the country on Saturday night for social justice, after half a million hit the streets last summer, with consensus-level support in the polls. Nothing changed.

Yet now MKs kowtow and ministers cower to a gaggle of fringe radicals instead of hundreds of thousands of their law-abiding middle and working-class citizens. Remember the people of the Hatikva neighborhood struggling with the poverty and the influx of refugees due to a negligent government? I doubt if the MKs do – those people are now dust; the settlers are golden.

Finally, I do not tolerate threats of violence for political gain. Ulpana residents said they would resist evacuation at any cost, and were quoted in Israel Hayom saying: “We will risk our lives. There is going to be a world war.” There can be no clearer statement of intention of violent action.

Rather than being feted, they ought to be apprehended. At present it seems that the compromise of shifting the buildings down the road will prevail; the vote is considered likely to fail if it is held. But the damage I have feared for years now is more stark than ever: occupation behavior does not stop at the Green Line. There is no ‘democratic Israel’ inside the wall, because the occupation is not geography, it is a mentality. And it cannot co-exist with democracy.