Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened Sunday’s cabinet meeting with an emotional statement about an issue that wasn’t on the agenda provided to ministers over the weekend.
“We’re currently holding a discussion with the Defense Ministry about young settlements,” he said. “This is a humanitarian issue – people who have no electricity or water. I very much hope we’ll be able to reach an agreement in the next day or two, because we have to solve this. There’s no justification for this, and it causes unnecessary suffering.”
Fundamentalist Israel is no longer Jewish, says Avrum Burg on Haaretz Weekly podcast. LISTEN
Behind this remark, which was aimed at the ears of settlers in the territories two months and one week before the election, hides a less heartwarming and more troubling story that the prime minister would evidently prefer to suppress – the story of how Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit managed to block Netanyahu’s effort to exclude Defense Minister Benny Gantz from involvement in a plan to legalize illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank (or to use the government’s preferred euphemism, “young settlements”).
The plan, drafted by Settlement Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, would have retroactively legalized 46 outposts. On the eve of an election in which Netanyahu’s Likud party will vie for settler votes along with at least two other parties – Yamina and Religious Zionism – Netanyahu and Hanegbi want to present these voters with an achievement in the form of legalization. But Gantz, who bears ministerial responsibility for the territories and whatever happens in them, has been preventing them.
Last week, Netanyahu tried to help matters along by organizing a conference call with Mendelblit, Hanegbi, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin and a National Security Council official. Netanyahu complained about the delays in approving the plan and charged that the “jurists” were responsible for the delay.
We’re not delaying anything, Mendelblit replied. If you want to organize something, give me instructions from the relevant political authorities and we’ll do the staff work.
Not necessary, Netanyahu replied. The Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank already did the staff work.
- Israel announces new settlement construction days before Biden inauguration
- 'I was wrong to join Netanyahu': Gantz calls for broad center-left coalition
- Netanyahu’s overtures to Israel's Arabs are also aimed at his right-wing voters
But Mendelblit dug in his heels. This is a matter for the defense minister, he said, and I need an order from him. He then asked that Deputy Attorney General Roy Schondorf be added to the call.
In response, Netanyahu asked that the head of the Civil Administration be added as well. But Mendelblit objected, saying, “He’s an IDF officer. He takes orders. I want an order from the defense minister.”
Netanyahu evidently realized that Mendelblit was determined not to let him circumvent the authorized minister. The call ended with an agreement that the Defense Ministry would join the discussions. Immediately afterwards, Mendelblit briefed Gantz on the call.
Gantz’s associates said he has many more urgent matters to raise in the cabinet than legalizing 46 outposts. Netanyahu’s pressure to legalize them now, they added, stems from fear that he is losing his right-wing base.
Defense Ministry officials also termed Hanegbi’s proposal “negligent,” because all 46 outposts can’t be treated the same way when their legal status isn’t identical. Instead, the Civil Administration will have to do thorough, lengthy staff work to draft recommendations on legalizing each one individually, they said.
“Illegal outposts” is an umbrella term that covers both settlements built without any cabinet authorization and authorized settlements that lack a master plan. Some were built on state land and others on privately owned Palestinian land.
Mendelblit’s office said it “does not comment on conversations between the attorney general and the prime minister.” Hanegbi’s office said it doesnt comment on the content of conversations he took part in, but nevertheless deemed Haaretz’s report of the conversation “baseless.”
“Talks to advance a decision on the issue of young settlements are being held among the defense, justice and settlement affairs ministries,” it added. “The Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration has been involved in this conversation from the first moment. Therefore, the defense minister carries significant weight in this process, whether directly or via officials in his ministry.”
The Prime Minister’s Office and the Knesset Speaker’s Office declined to comment.
Hanegbi drafted the plan together with Michael Biton, a member of Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party who serves as minister for civilian and social affairs within the Defense Ministry. But Biton was outraged when Hanegbi issued a press statement about the plan before all the details had been finalized and without consulting him.