Israel’s ruling coalition is gearing up for a major test, with a vote expected Monday on the legal status of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank. The fragile union could collapse if the vote fails to pass.
Emergency regulations in place for decades have created a separate legal system for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, applying parts of Israeli law to them — even though they live in occupied territory and not within sovereign Israeli land.
These regulations expire at the end of the month and if they are not renewed, that legal system, which Israel has cultivated for its settlers in the West Bank since it occupied the territory in 1967, will be thrown into question. It could also change the legal status of the 5,00,000 settlers living there.
Proponents of extending the law say they are merely seeking to maintain a status quo and preserve the government's shelf life. Opponents say extending the regulations would deepen an unfair system that pits Israelis and Palestinians in the same occupied territory under separate legal systems, which rights groups have equated to apartheid.
The coalition, made up of eight ideologically distinct parties, came together last year and pledged to sidestep divisive issues that could threaten its survival. Now, one of those very issues — Palestinian statehood and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank — risks toppling it.
One of the coalition's members, the nationalist New Hope, has threatened to bolt if the coalition cannot pass the measure. Legislators and party leaders were scrambling to rally votes and even parties that support Palestinian independence and criticize Israel's settlement enterprise were expected to vote in favor — just to save the coalition.
“It’s not simple or easy for us either but we understand there is an overarching goal and that overarching goal is the survival of this government,” Yair Golan of the dovish Meretz party, told Israeli Army Radio.
He urged all coalition members to vote in favor for the sake of the coalition, even if it defies their politics.
One of the parties deliberating over its vote is Ra'am, an Arab Islamist group that made history as the first Arab party to join an Israeli coalition. Voting in favor of extending the law will likely anger its constituents.
The opposition meanwhile, made up mainly of nationalist parties, appears ready to forsake its pro-settlement ideology and will vote against extending the regulations, to try to bring down the coalition.
If New Hope leaves, it could give the opposition the votes it needs to trigger new elections or form a new government.
“It will create legal chaos in Judea and Samaria" and harm Israeli citizens, New Hope's leader, Justice Minister Gideon Saar, told Israeli public broadcaster Kan last week, using the biblical name for the West Bank. “The government has a responsibility, and the elementary responsibility is to pass and maintain basic legal arrangements.”
The government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has faced hurdles before. Idit Silman, the coalition whip from Bennett's small, nationalist party, quit the coalition earlier this year, leaving the government with 60 seats in the 120-seat Knesset — surviving immediate defeat but struggling to govern. Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, another legislator from Meretz also quit, but later rejoined after being promised a raft of benefits for her constituents, Palestinian citizens of Israel. Another member of Bennett's party defected last year, and others have expressed misgivings with the coalition arrangements.
Bennett's government came together last year after two years of political mayhem, with four elections producing no clear winner. The eight coalition members were united by their goal of ousting former leader Benjamin Netanyahu — who now heads the opposition, from where he is battling corruption charges — and have sought to work around their issues to keep him out of power.
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. It later annexed east Jerusalem in a move that is not recognized internationally and pulled out troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005. But hundreds of thousands of Israelis reside in over 120 settlements dotting the West Bank, along with more than 2.5 million Palestinians.
Since Israel has never annexed the territory, it technically remains under military rule, creating a bewildering legal reality. For Jewish settlers in the West Bank, most of Israel’s criminal and civilian laws apply. They vote in Israeli elections, enlist for compulsory military service and pay their taxes to the state.
But these core laws are applied on a personal rather than a geographic basis, meaning they apply to Israelis because of their citizenship and regardless of their location.
To get around accusations of de facto annexation, Israel relies heavily on military decrees, rather than parliament, to enforce laws on settlers. Israel’s Supreme Court steps in when loopholes in this patchwork arrangement emerge.
Palestinians, meanwhile, are subject to a different set of laws, adding to the confusion — and often inequality.
This legal status will remain if the law in question on Monday passes. If it fails to pass, settlers will automatically fall under military rule, like Palestinians in the West Bank, according to Emmanuel Gross, an Israeli expert on criminal and international law and a former military judge.
Basic, everyday relations between settlers and the state will crumble: Israel won't be able to levy taxes and police won't be able to investigate criminal offences, among other things, Gross said. The status of Palestinian inmates being held in Israeli prisons will also be challenged, as Israel uses this same set of emergency regulations to hold prisoners outside of occupied land.
“The entire legal basis of what happens with the settlers today will be cancelled. This can cause chaos,” he said, adding that he expected the government would find a way to ensure the regulations are extended.