Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit seems to be leaning toward approving the extension of Israeli law to the settlements and the Jordan Valley before Israel’s March 2 election, if the Knesset supports the measure.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to go forward with the move, in the wake of the publication this week of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan. Mendelblit has received neither a formal request to consider the matter, nor a detailed proposal.
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As a matter of principle, the attorney general views the annexation of territory in the West Bank as a political issue, in regard to which the government should be permitted to set and follow policy – within the limits of a transitional government. Mendelblit said Tuesday that he did not rule out annexation in an election season, adding, “Such things have happened before, diplomatic agreements a month or so before an election.”
Among the considerations that Mendelblit can be expected to weigh are the specific body that will make the decision, the degree of public support for it, the government’s justification for carrying out the move now, the position of the national security council in regard to the matter’s urgency, and the future status of the Palestinians living in the areas marked for annexation.
After the presentation of the plan at the White House on Tuesday, Netanyahu said the cabinet would discuss on Sunday applying Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea area and all Israeli settlements in the West Bank. On Wednesday morning, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said this discussion would not be held Sunday, due to time constraints. Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar said later that the proposal would be brought to the Knesset for a vote before the election.
Benny Gantz’s double influence
Since the transitional government does not have the confidence of the Knesset, the cabinet’s approval would not be enough for the attorney general to approve the extension of sovereignty. Nor would a military order, which is considered an administrative measure only. The attorney general would view legislative passage of the measure as having legal validity, and would likely persuade him to defend it in the High Court of Justice in the event of a challenge. Mendelblit will also consider how much support the bill garners, and also the position of Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz: If annexation is approved by a broad, multiparty margin, it would help to rebuff accusations of a Likud campaign trick.
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The support of Gantz could also be a consideration in rejecting the proposal: Netanyahu would have to explain why the application of Israeli sovereignty is such an urgent matter if even his main election rival supports it, meaning its chances of being approved by any new government are great. In regard to the question of timing, the attorney general will also consult National Security Adviser and National Security Council Director Meir Ben-Shabbat.
An additional test regarding the measure’s legality has to do with the status of the Palestinians living in the territories that Israel plans to annex. According to the Trump administration’s plan, Palestinians remaining in the enclaves inside contiguous Israeli territory shall become citizens of the State of Palestine. However, according to the maps that are part of the plan, there will be territories with Palestinian communities that will be annexed to Israel, for example shepherding communities in the Jordan Valley -- Area C under the Oslo Accords.
In such cases, granting Israeli citizenship to Palestinians living in the annexed areas could solve the legal problem. Granting residency without citizenship, as in the case of Arab residents of East Jerusalem, has in recent years been criticized by the High Court as violating international law, and is liable to be problematic.