Netanyahu’s government makes West Bank settlement expansion a priority
JERUSALEM (AP) — The incoming hardline government of Benjamin Netanyahu put settlement expansion in the West Bank at the top of its list of priorities Wednesday, vowing to legalize dozens of illegally built outposts and annex the occupied territory as part of its coalition agreement with its ultranational allies.
The coalition agreements, released a day before the government took office, also included language endorsing discrimination against LGBTQ people on religious grounds, controversial court reforms, as well as generous stipends for ultra-Orthodox men who prefer to study rather than work. to work. .
The package set the stage for what is expected to be a rocky start for Netanyahu’s government and could put him at odds with much of the Israeli public and Israel’s closest allies abroad.
His long list of guidelines was topped by a commitment to “advance and develop settlements in all parts of the land of Israel,” including “Judea and Samaria,” the Biblical names for the West Bank.
Israel captured the West Bank in 1967 along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians seek the West Bank as the heart of a future independent state. In the decades since, Israel has built dozens of Jewish settlements there that are now home to some 500,000 Israelis living alongside some 2.5 million Palestinians.
Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered by most of the international community to be illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. The United States has already warned the incoming government against taking steps that could undermine dwindling hopes of establishing an independent Palestinian state.
There was no immediate Palestinian or American comment.
Netanyahu’s new government, the most religious and hardline in Israel’s history, is made up of ultra-Orthodox parties, a far-right ultranationalist religious faction affiliated with the West Bank settler movement and its Likud party. He will be sworn in on Thursday.
Several of Netanyahu’s key allies, including most of the Religious Zionism party, are ultranationalist settlers from the West Bank.
In the coalition agreement between Likud and Religious Zionism, Netanyahu pledges to legalize wild settlements considered illegal even by the Israeli government. He also promises to annex the West Bank “while choosing the moment and considering the national and international interests of the State of Israel.”
Such a move would alienate much of the world and provide new fuel for critics who compare Israel’s policies in the West Bank to apartheid in South Africa.
The deal also grants favors to Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right politician who will be in charge of the national police as the newly created national security minister.
It includes a commitment to vastly expand and increase government funding for Israeli settlements in the divided West Bank city of Hebron, where a small ultranationalist Jewish community lives in heavily fortified neighborhoods amid tens of thousands of Palestinians. Ben-Gvir lives in a nearby settlement.
The deal also includes a clause that promises to change the country’s anti-discrimination laws to allow companies to refuse service to people “because of religious belief.”
The legislation sparked outrage earlier this week when members of Ben-Gvir’s party said the law could be used to deny services to LGBTQ people. Netanyahu has said that he will not allow the law to pass, but nonetheless left the clause in the coalition agreement.
Among his other changes is placing Bezalel Smotrich, a settler leader who heads the Religious Zionism party, in a newly created ministerial post overseeing settlement policy in the West Bank.
In an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal, Smotrich said the West Bank would not “change the political or legal status” of the West Bank, indicating that annexation would not take place immediately.
But he criticized the “irresponsible military government” that controls key aspects of Israeli settlement life, such as construction, expansion and infrastructure projects. Smotrich, who will also become finance minister, is expected to push hard to expand settlement construction and financing while stifling Palestinian development in the territory.
Netanyahu and his allies also agreed to push through changes aimed at reforming the country’s legal system, first of all a bill that would allow parliament to overturn Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 lawmakers. Critics say the law will undermine government checks and balances and erode a critical democratic institution.
Netanyahu returns to power after he was ousted from office last year after serving as prime minister from 2009 to 2021.
Critics also say Netanyahu has a conflict of interest in pushing for the legal review because he is currently on trial on corruption charges.
Two of his key ministers, incoming interior minister Aryeh Deri and Ben-Gvir, have criminal records. Deri, who served in prison in 2002 for bribery, pleaded guilty to tax fraud earlier this year, and Netanyahu and his coalition passed legislation this week allowing her to serve as a minister despite his conviction. Ben-Gvir was convicted in 2009 for inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization.
Netanyahu’s associates are seeking sweeping political reforms that could alienate large sections of the Israeli public, increase tensions with the Palestinians and put the country on a collision course with the US and American Jews.
The Biden administration has said it strongly opposes settlement expansion and has chastised the Israeli government for it in the past.
Earlier on Wednesday, Israel’s figurehead president expressed his “deep concern” about the incoming government and its positions on LGBTQ rights, racism and the country’s Arab minority in a rare meeting with Ben-Gvir, one of the members more radical in the coalition.
Herzog’s office said the president urged Ben-Gvir to “calm the stormy winds and be vigilant and internalize criticism.”
The government platform also mentioned that loosely defined rules governing holy sites, including the Jerusalem hotspot sanctuary known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, would remain in place. the same.
Ben-Gvir and other religious Zionist politicians had called for the “status quo” to be changed to allow Jewish prayer at the site, a move that risked inflaming tensions with the Palestinians. The state of the siege is the emotional epicenter of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.