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Netanyahu government makes West Bank settlement its expansion top priority

The coalition agreement also includes language endorsing discrimination against LGBTQ people, contentious judicial reforms and generous stipends for ultra-Orthodox men who prefer to study instead of work.

JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu’s incoming hard-line government put West Bank settlement expansion at the top of its list of priorities on Wednesday, vowing to legalize dozens of illegally built outposts and annex the occupied territory as part of its coalition deal with its ultranational allies.

The coalition agreements, released a day before the government is to be sworn into office, also included language endorsing discrimination against LGBTQ people on religious grounds, contentious judicial reforms, as well as generous stipends for ultra-Orthodox men who prefer to study instead of work.

The package laid the groundwork for what is expected to be a stormy beginning for Netanyahu’s government and could put it at odds with large parts of the Israeli public and Israel’s closest allies abroad.

Its lengthy list of guidelines was led by a commitment to “advance and develop settlement in all parts of the land of Israel,” including “Judea and Samaria,” the biblical names for the West Bank. 

Protest against Israeli settlements in the village of Beit Dajan in Nablus, Palestine - 09 Dec 2022
Palestinian protesters argue with Israeli soldiers during a demonstration against Israeli settlements near Nablus in the West Bank. Nasser Ishtayeh / Sipa USA via AP

Israel captured the West Bank in 1967 along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians seek the West Bank as the heartland of a future independent state. In the decades since, Israel has constructed dozens of Jewish settlements there that are now home to around 500,000 Israelis living alongside around 2.5 million Palestinians.

Most of the international community considers Israel’s West Bank settlements illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. The United States already has warned the incoming government against taking steps that could undermine the dwindling hopes for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. 

There was no immediate Palestinian or U.S. comment.

Netanyahu’s new government — the most religious and hard-line in Israel’s history — is made up of ultra-Orthodox parties, a far-right ultranationalist religious faction affiliated with the West Bank settler movement and his Likud party. It is to be sworn in on Thursday.

Several of Netanyahu’s key allies, including most of the Religious Zionism party, are ultranationalist West Bank settlers.

In the coalition agreement between Likud and Religious Zionism, Netanyahu pledges to legalize wildcat settlement outposts considered illegal even by the Israeli government. He also promises to annex the West Bank “while choosing the timing and considering the national and international interests of the state of Israel.” 

Such a move would alienate much of the world, and give new fuel to critics who compare Israeli policies in the West Bank to apartheid South Africa. 

The deal also grants favors to Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right politician who will be in charge of the national police force as the newly created national security minister. 

Israel's outgoing coalition was one of its most diverse and with it came a slew of progressive policies on the environment, LGBTQ issues and funding for the country's Arab minority.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, one of two key incoming ministers who have criminal records, marches in a rally in Tel Aviv on Oct. 21.Oded Balilty / AP

It includes a commitment to expand and vastly increase government funding for the Israeli settlements in the divided West Bank city of Hebron, where a tiny ultranationalist Jewish community lives in heavily fortified neighborhoods amid tens of thousands of Palestinians. Ben-Gvir lives in a nearby settlement.

The agreement also includes a clause pledging to change the country’s anti-discrimination laws to allow businesses to refuse service to people “because of a religious belief.” 

The legislation drew outrage earlier this week when members of Ben-Gvir’s party said the law could be used to deny services to LGBTQ people. Netanyahu has said he will not let the law pass, but nonetheless left the clause in the coalition agreement.

Israeli police say they arrested a man on Thursday suspected of sending death threats to an organizer of the annual Jerusalem Pride Parade, an event that has witnessed attacks on participants by religious radicals in previous years.
Thousands of people march under heavy security in the annual Pride Parade in Jerusalem on June 2. Maya Alleruzzo / AP file

Among its other changes is placing Bezalel Smotrich, a settler leader who heads Religious Zionism party, in a newly created ministerial post overseeing West Bank settlement policy.

In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal, Smotrich said there would be no “changing the political or legal status” of the West Bank, indicating that annexation would not immediately take place.

But he leveled criticism at the “feckless military government” that controls key aspects of life for Israeli settlements — such as construction, expansion and infrastructure projects. Smotrich, who will also be finance minister, is expected to push hard to expand construction and funding for settlements while stifling Palestinian development in the territory.

Netanyahu and his allies also agreed to push through changes meant at overhauling the country’s legal system — first and foremost a bill that would allow parliament to overturn Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 lawmakers. Critics say the law will undermine government checks and balances and erode a critical democratic institution.

Netanyahu is returning to power after he was ousted from office last year after serving as prime minister from 2009 to 2021. 

Critics also say Netanyahu has a conflict of interest in pushing for the legal overhaul because is currently on trial for corruption charges. 

Two of his key ministers — incoming interior minister Aryeh Deri and Ben-Gvir — have criminal records. Deri, who served time in prison in 2002 for bribery, pleaded guilty to tax fraud earlier this year, and Netanyahu and his coalition passed a law this week to allow him to serve as a minister despite his conviction. Ben-Gvir was convicted in 2009 of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization.

Netanyahu’s partners are seeking widespread policy reforms that could alienate large swaths of the Israeli public, raise tensions with the Palestinians, and put the country on a collision course with the U.S. and American Jewry.

The Biden administration has said it strongly opposes settlement expansion and has rebuked the Israeli government for it in the past.

Earlier on Wednesday, Israel’s figurehead president expressed “deep concern” about the incoming government and its positions on LGBTQ rights, racism and the country’s Arab minority in a rare meeting called with Ben-Gvir, one of the coalition’s most radical members. 

Herzog’s office said the president urged Ben-Gvir to “calm the stormy winds and to be attentive to and internalize the criticism.” 

The government platform also mentioned that the loosely defined rules governing holy sites, including Jerusalem’s flashpoint shrine known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, would remain the same. 

Ben-Gvir and other Religious Zionism politicians had called for the “status quo” to be changed to allow Jewish prayer at the site, a move that risked inflaming tensions with the Palestinians. The status of the site is the emotional epicenter of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.