Israel’s government suffered a defeat at the hands of the opposition on Monday when it voted down a push to uphold Israeli law in settlements on the occupied West Bank, posing a challenge for the ruling coalition.
In force since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank, the law, giving settlers there the same rights as citizens in Israel, is automatically ratified by parliament every five years. But two members of the broad coalition, a member of the Arab Ra’am party and a member of the leftist Meretz party, voted at first reading against the bill.
Their rebellion does not for the moment call into question the continuation of Israeli law in the West Bank, but rather the stability of the government led by the prime minister, Naftali Bennett.
The opposition, which had announced that it would vote against the bill simply to show its distrust of the government and is made up mainly of nationalist parties led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, gathered a total of 58 votes to 52 for the coalition.
The government recently lost its majority in the house, setting the stage for a showdown over the “Judea and Samaria Law”, as Israel calls the occupied West Bank.
If it is not passed on 1 July, the more than 475,000 Israelis living there will no longer receive the same rights as other Israelis – including voting rights.
According to Israeli commentators, the rightwing opposition, led by Netanyahu, will not block the renewal of the pro-settlement measures.
Rather it will seek to weaken the government of Bennett, a leader who himself favors settlement expansion, by showing the coalition cannot pass the law.
“Bennett, go home. It’s time to bring Israel back to the right,” Netanyahu’s Likud party responded in a brief post-vote message in Hebrew.
Bennett’s Yamina party issued a statement accusing Netanyahu and his Likud party of banding together with leftist settlement opponents to serve the former prime minister’s personal interests. “The Likud will burn the state for Netanyahu’s needs,” it said, vowing to find a way to pass the required legislation.
Israel’s foreign policy chief, Yair Lapid, and the ruling coalition’s co-leader, acknowledged a “defeat” for the government which he said would come back stronger to “win the next round”.
Bennett’s government came together last year after two years of political mayhem, with four elections producing no clear winner.
The eight coalition members were united by their goal of ousting Netanyahu – who now heads the opposition, from where he is battling corruption charges – and have sought to work around their issues to keep him out of power.
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. It later annexed east Jerusalem in a move that is not recognized internationally and pulled out troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.
But hundreds of thousands of Israelis reside in more than 120 settlements dotting the West Bank, along with more than 2.5 million Palestinians.
Since Israel has never annexed the territory, it technically remains under the military rule, creating a bewildering legal reality. For Jewish settlers in the West Bank, most of Israel’s criminal and civilian laws apply. They vote in Israeli elections, enlist for compulsory military service and pay their taxes to the state. Palestinians, meanwhile, are subject to a different set of laws, adding to the confusion – and often inequality.
If the government does not find a new solution in the coming weeks, settlers will automatically fall under military rule, like Palestinians in the West Bank, according to Emmanuel Gross, an Israeli expert on criminal and international law and a former military judge.
Basic, everyday relations between settlers and the state will crumble: Israel won’t be able to levy taxes and police won’t be able to investigate criminal offenses, among other things, Gross said.
The status of Palestinian inmates being held in Israeli prisons will also be challenged, as Israel uses this same set of emergency regulations to hold prisoners outside occupied land.
“The entire legal basis of what happens with the settlers today will be cancelled. This can cause chaos,” he said, adding that he expected the government would find a way to ensure the regulations are extended.
With Agence France-Presse and Associated Press