The new Netanyahu: Not so beholden to Israeli settlers

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, newly aligned with the more centrist Kadima party, moved today to knock down settler houses built on Palestinian property.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Israeli youths take part in a protest in Jerusalem calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to approve a bill in parliament, June 6. Netanyahu won a parliamentary battle on Wednesday against an attempt by far-right lawmakers to legalize all Israeli settler homes on private Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media at his Jerusalem office on June 6.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finalized a plan today to remove settler homes built on Palestinian property and quashed a move by hard-line allies in parliament to retroactively legalize the housing. The moves highlight the Israeli leader’s newfound political leverage after broadening his coalition last month.

The plan comes in response to a Supreme Court order to evacuate the property, located in the Beit El settlement near Ramallah, by the end of the month. Under the plan, Israel will lift five buildings off their foundation in the "Ulpana Hill" neighborhood of Beit El and move them to an army base nearby. Mr. Netanyahu will compensate settlers by approving some 50 new units for West Bank settlers.

Though evacuating the property isn’t expected to revive the moribund peace process, it does demonstrate that the inclusion of the more centrist Kadima party has liberated Netanyahu’s coalition from being almost exclusively dependent on the votes of the right wing.

"This is one of the reasons why he formed the coalition. This was the big issue that was looming over everyone’s head," says Herb Kenion, a political commentator for the Jerusalem Post. "He realized that [the evacuation of Ulpana Hill] was going to be a problem."

With multiple court cases alleging illegal building on Palestinian property, Netanyahu has been caught between legal pressure from the high court on one side and political pressure from settlers to resist. In August, Netanyahu faces a deadline on a court order to evacuate a settler outpost near Beit El with dozens of families.  

Settler advocates pushed a bill to sidestep the court rulings by transferring ownership on the land to Jewish residents and offering monetary compensation to the Palestinians. Worried that flouting the Supreme Court would undermine his administration at home and abroad, Netanyahu opposed the law and threatened to fire cabinet ministers and deputy ministers who did not fall into line. The bill was defeated by a vote of 69-22.

An Israeli official said that the process of removing the houses in Ulpana Hill would begin in the coming weeks. But in a sign of potential clashes to oppose the evacuation, frustrated settler supporters burned tires and blocked road traffic in Jerusalem today.

Many of them accused leading members of Netanyahu’s Likud party of betrayal. Indeed, many Likud members said they supported the law’s passage in the weeks leading up to the vote, but changed their position after Netanyahu’s threat.

Ben Dror Yemini, a political columnist for the Maariv daily newspaper, says that Netanyahu was concerned that passage of the law would undermine Israel’s standing abroad.

“It will look like an apartheid law which intends to confiscate Palestinian lands,” he says. The government is likely to face physical clashes with settler die-hards when it dismantles the homes, he adds. “It's not going to be easy, that’s for sure.”

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