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Even before the ink had dried on the government's announcement that it welcomed the plan advanced by the Quartet for the resumption of peace negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has undertaken an initiative that pulls the rug out from under international efforts to break the current deadlock. (It was that stalemate that led the Palestinians to seek recognition of their statehood from the United Nations Security Council. ) A few days after Israel was taken to task by the leaders of the Quartet - which consists of the United States, the UN, the European Union and Russia - over planned construction in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood, over the 1967 Green Line, and after they called on the government to refrain from similar unilateral steps, Netanyahu has found a new way to provoke the Palestinians and embarrass the last of Israel's friends around the world.

As Chaim Levinson reported in Haaretz yesterday, the prime minister has instructed Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to convene a team of legal experts to find ways to legalize the status of homes built on privately-owned Palestinian land.

It stands to reason that the formation of the team was designed to head off the fulfillment of the State Prosecutor's Office's commitment to the High Court of Justice that the state would evacuate a number of settlement outposts and homes that were built on land that was stolen from its Palestinian owners. At the same time, the government has been diligently working to retroactively legalize structures built without city master plans or building permits required by law on "state land" at outposts and settlements.

The expansion of settlements on "state land" and the avoidance of evacuating outposts built over the past decade contravenes the commitment made by the cabinet of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon (in which Netanyahu served as a senior minister ). The commitment, according to the Middle East Road Map, constitutes one of the foundations upon which the Quartet's plan is based. Giving a government stamp of approval to the theft of the land of Palestinians, who are subject to the benevolence of the Israeli occupation authorities, would be akin to spitting in the faces of the Quartet members. It would also involve crossing a moral and legal red line.

It is regrettable that Netanyahu has insisted on devoting his energies to damaging the peace process and provoking dissension and strife instead of the resumption of negotiations and vigorous action against right-wing extremist violence. It should be expected that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein will hasten to remind the prime minister and justice minister of the biblical prophet Nathan's metaphor of the rich man who stole the poor man's only lamb. And in that spirit, the theft of a sukkah belonging to a poor nation is a distortion of law, justice, democracy and Jewish values.