A battle over several homes in the West Bank has opened a rift between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a constituency he usually counts on for support: the hundreds of thousands of Jews who live in settlements across the Israeli-occupied area.
The dispute centers on an outpost north of Jerusalem and well into the West Bank known as Ulpana where settlers built at least five apartment buildings on land belonging to neighboring Palestinians. Israel’s own High Court of Justice has ruled that that the buildings must be evacuated by July 1 so that the landowners can reclaim their property.
Netanyahu has vowed to comply with the ruling despite pressure from his right flank. With his recently-expanded governing coalition, Netanyahu can for the first time deal firmly with the settlers, even freeze settlement construction and jumpstart peace talks with the Palestinians, without worrying about being toppled by hard-line supporters in parliament.
But alongside the evacuation decision, Netanyahu has also gone to great lengths to appease the settlers, a strong indication that he does not intend to use his more robust position to take dramatic initiatives on the peace front. Earlier this week, the Israeli leader promised to build hundreds of new homes in settlements across the West Bank as a kind of compensation for the Ulpana move – a decision that was condemned by the United States and much of the world. Many of the homes are slated to be built in settlements close to the Israeli border, but others will be erected deep in Palestinian territory.
“I think the decision makes it clear that Netanyahu is not preparing for new peace talks with the Palestinians or some new initiative,” says Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University. “Expanding the coalition was purely political and had nothing to do with that.”
The Ulpana case is part of a broader political and legal morass bound up with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Most of the world deems settlements in the Palestinian territory illegal because they’re built on land Israel captured during war in 1967. Under international law, countries are not allowed to transfer their own populations to a territory they occupy in war (Israel has a complicated legal argument to justify the settlements).
But there are a few dozen Jewish settlements scattered around the West Bank known as outposts that Israel itself considers illegal. Built by settlers over the years without explicit authorization from the Israeli government (though sometimes in collusion with government agencies), the outposts have helped shift the debate away from the bigger question of the legitimacy of settling in the West Bank and towards narrower more legalistic issues.
Successive Israeli governments have pledged to dismantle the outposts but have mostly succumbed to pressure from settlers to keep them in place. In 2003, Israel promised the U.S. it would dismantle 28 such communities as part of a peace plan known as the Roadmap. Nine years later, all but two of these outposts remain, according to Hagit Ofran, who monitors settlement activity for the Israeli left-wing group, Peace Now.
“There just isn’t the will in Israel or even in the United States to seriously tackle the issue,” Ofran told the Daily Beast. “When the United States has been serious about it, Israeli governments have found ways to fool them.”
Uplana’s status is even more complicated. Among the outposts (and in many settlements as well), settlers built some homes on land belonging to individual Palestinians. In a few cases, those Palestinians have petitioned Israeli courts and won judgments against the settlers. Right-wing members of Israel’s parliament tried this week to pass a law that would nullify the judgments and compensate the Palestinian landowners financially without uprooting the settlers. The bill failed to muster a majority.
Netanyahu has built his political career on support from the settlers. But he has also angered them at times—by agreeing to cede some West Bank land to the Palestinians during his first term as prime minister in the 1990s, and by consenting to a partial moratorium on settlement expansion two years ago.
Over the years, some analysts have suggested that Netanyahu would be more forthcoming with the Palestinians were he not beholden to the settlers. But after bringing the rival Kadima party into his coalition last month, Netanyahu now commands an almost unprecedented majority in parliament—94 of the Knesset’s 120 seats—making him one of the strongest prime ministers in Israeli history.
“He has the power to do many things,” said Klein, the political scientist. “But I think that in his heart and mind he is fully in favor of settlement expansion. The problem was never the coalition.”