Netanyahu Backs Expanding Jerusalem’s Jurisdiction to Include West Bank Settlements

New legislation aims to bolster the capital’s Jewish majority, while stopping short of applying Israeli law to the settlements

An archive picture of the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem.
REUTERS

The government is working on a dramatic change in Jerusalem’s borders that would bring Ma’aleh Adumim and other West Bank settlements, large and small, under Jerusalem’s municipal jurisdiction. Also, some of the city’s Arab neighborhoods would be turned into autonomous boroughs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Wednesday that he would back a bill to expand Jerusalem’s borders and turn the city into a kind of umbrella municipality comprised of several boroughs. The new municipal borders would include the large West Bank settlements of Ma’aleh Adumim, Betar Ilit, Givat Ze’ev and Efrat, as well as the smaller settlements that make up the Gush Etzion Regional Council.

The goal of the bill is to bolster the capital’s Jewish majority and, in the words of its explanatory notes, “restore Jerusalem’s status as a symbol.”

The bill’s sponsor, MK Yoav Kish (Likud), insisted on Wednesday that the bill will not apply Israeli sovereignty to the settlements. Rather, the settlements will be autonomous boroughs of Jerusalem, and remain under the military administration that governs the other settlements.

The original bill, submitted in March, included a provision that would have applied “the state’s laws, jurisdiction and administration within the jurisdictions of the local authorities [i.e., several West Bank settlements] added” to Jerusalem. But Kish recently removed this provision, which would clearly have applied Israeli sovereignty to those settlements.

The proposed changes in Jerusalem's municipal borders

Even without it, however, the bill’s provisions might apply de facto sovereignty under international law to the settlements at issue, because it doesn’t spell out exactly which administrative powers the Jerusalem municipality would acquire over its new settlement boroughs. Instead of detailing the division of powers between the Jerusalem municipality and the local councils governing the boroughs, it tasks the interior minister with drafting regulations to do so, in consultation with the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee.

Given this major lacuna in the law, it’s not clear it can be passed in the current format.

Kish insisted the settlements would continue to enjoy municipal autonomy in the form of their own local councils. “Residents of these communities will cast four different ballots in the elections: a ballot for the mayor of Jerusalem, a ballot for the city council, and at the same time, they’ll vote for the head of their local council and members of that council,” he said.

Arab neighborhoods beyond fence would be split off

The bill also includes another change aimed at bolstering Jerusalem’s Jewish majority – splitting off the three Arab neighborhoods that are already divided from the rest of the city de facto by the separation fence. These neighborhoods – the Shoafat refugee camp, Kafr Aqab and Anata – would become autonomous boroughs within the Jerusalem municipality.

But although Netanyahu told Kish to try to push his bill ahead once the Knesset’s summer recess ends in about three months, a coalition source said the chances of the three Arab neighborhoods being separated from Jerusalem under the new amendment are much higher than the chances that Kish’s bill, with its provisions regarding the settlements, will pass.

Another senior coalition member said the government is seriously considering turning those three Arab neighborhoods into an independent town within the next few months. He said the main purpose of such a move is to improve living conditions for residents of these neighborhoods, since both the Jerusalem municipality and the police have trouble providing them services.

Though no exact population data exists for these neighborhoods, they are estimated to contain anywhere from 120,000 to 140,000 residents, of whom only about 70,000 are thought to be Israeli citizens or permanent residents who can vote in Jerusalem’s municipal elections.

On Tuesday, the Knesset gave preliminary approval to an amendment to the Basic Law on Jerusalem that enables certain neighborhoods to be split off from the city and incorporated into new local governments. That amendment must still be passed in another two votes before it becomes law.

If passed, the amendment to the Basic Law on Jerusalem would require a majority of 80 of the Knesset’s 120 members to approve any diplomatic agreement that includes giving up parts of Jerusalem. However, it requires no such majority for merely altering the city’s boundaries that certain neighborhoods would become independent towns.

“This law enables us to make municipal changes throughout the city, as long as the [new] municipality is under full Israeli sovereignty,” said the amendment’s sponsor, MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi), during Tuesday's debate on it. “In other words, the bill constrains the possibility of making concessions in Jerusalem as part of a diplomatic agreement.”

MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) retorted, “Anyone who wants to prevent any possibility of a historic compromise agreement enacts a law like this, and those who sponsored it don’t hide their intent to prevent the Jerusalem occupied in 1967 from being returned. There is no Palestinian state without East Jerusalem as its capital.”

Zeev Elkin, the minister for Jerusalem affairs, mocked senior members of the Zionist Union party who voted against the amendment despite having supported the original bill 17 years ago.

“In 2000, the Labor Party knew very well that a party which presumes to be a Zionist party can’t undermine Jerusalem,” Elkin said, referring to the main component of the Zionist Union joint ticket. “What happened to you in the ensuing 17 years?”

MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) called the amendment “a bizarre bill. Even the people who wrote it don’t understand it. It’s a competition between coalition members as to who can scramble their brain more over Jerusalem’s sanctity. The entire bill is empty rhetoric.”

MK Zehava Galon (Meretz) agreed. “We’re in a competition over who can swear more fealty to the delusional messianic right,” she said. “You’ve all gone crazy. Instead of making diplomatic decisions, Netanyahu is making political decisions.”