Israel's Settlement-legalization Bill Receives Preliminary Approval From Knesset

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, chairman of Kulanu, swayed the vote in favor of the bill after backtracking on his intention to oppose it.

Moshe Kahlon and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Moshe Kahlon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Marc Israel Sellem

A bill to retroactively legalize illegal settlements passed its first Knesset reading on Wednesday afternoon with the support of the Kulanu Knesset faction of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

Kahlon announced earlier in the day, following a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that his faction would support the bill.

The bill was put to the vote in three versions, all of which included a controversial clause retroactively legalizing existing settlements that were built illegally, such as Amona.

The High Court on Sunday confirmed its original ruling that Amona must be evacuated by December 25, in response to a state petition for a delay.

The first version of the bill passed the first reading by 58 votes to 50; the second by 57-52 and the third by 58 to 51.

Despite the first reading vote, Coalition chairman David Bitan has said that he does not intend bringing it to the plenum for its second reading.

Settlers protest against the slated evacuation of Amona, an illegal West Bank outpost, in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, November 11, 2016.
Emil Salman

Kulanu's votes were regarded as being decisive in getting the bill passed by the Knesset. Earlier, it had been speculated that the Kulanu Knesset members would absent themselves from the vote, following Kahlon's statement on Tuesday that he would not support the bill due to the damage it could do to the Supreme Court.

In his announcement, Kahlon said that his faction would suffice with a declarative reservation over the potential damage that the bill could cause the court.

"I just left the prime minister and we agreed that the Knesset Speaker will announce that the bill does not harm the High Court," Kahlon said. 

"If it harms the Supreme Court at any stage of the legislative progress, Kulanu will oppose it," he added.

Biton subsequently made the declaration from the podium.

The bill would allow settlers to live on private Palestinian land while compensating its owners financially. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has repeatedly stated that he would not defend the bill against a challenged in the High Court, because it contradicts international law.

In the debate preceding the vote, Opposition leader Isaac Herzog described the bill as the "Knesset's bill of horror." He called on all Knesset members to oppose the bill, saying that "never before in the country's history has the Knesset voted in total contradiction to the law of the land and international law."

Knesset member Ilan Gilon (Meretz), who was ejected from the chamber during the raucous debate, said the bill "resembles legislation in third-world countries, where laws are written retroactively to whitewash their crimes."

"Just as we succeeded in this vote, we will succeed in the future – with tenacity, with faith and in cooperation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the other parties in the nationalist camp," Education Minister Naftali Bennett said after the vote.

Members of Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi party were responsible for submitting all three drafts of the bill.

"Whoever wants more proof of the cruelty, immorality and violence of the occupation got it in this bill," said Knesset member Yousef Jibrin of the Joint List. "It gives lands to cruel robbers and spits in the face of the law and the international community."

Coalition chairman Bitan initially hesitated over bringing the bill to a Knesset vote on Wednesday, out of concern that he would not be able to garner a majority for passing it. However, the opposition moved to expedite the process by deferring debate on other items on the agenda.

Likud sources said on Wednesday morning that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would probably not be present at the vote - after ensuring that an opposition member was also away to maintain parity - so as not to directly defy the international community.

But Bennett and his party colleague Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked clarified that if the vote did not take place on Wednesday, Habayit Hayehudi would not support bills brought forward by the coalition in the near future.

Party officials said there were no talks being conducted over reaching a compromise. “Bennett is determined to see this through. After a year of foot-dragging there is no other way of saving thousands of homes in Judea and Samaria,” he said

Netanyahu could have prevented the vote by filing an appeal against the approval of the bill by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, either in person or through another cabinet member. That would have forced a discussion in the entire cabinet before submission of the bill to the Knesset.

The Amona settlers’ campaign headquarters responded to reports that the bill might be passed without the retroactive clause, which would result in their evacuation, by saying: “We hereby announce clearly that anyone who is partner to the rotten maneuver of cancelling that clause will be personally responsible, for generations to come, for the destruction of a Jewish community in the Land of Israel.”