Monday, February 6, 2017

Israel's Regulation Bill Will Draw Backlash

The Knesset has passed a controversial "Regulation Bill" that legalizes settler outposts in the West Bank and halts their evacuations and demolition. These outposts are different from the major settlement blocs like Gilo, Maale Adumim, and Ariel. They are also different from settlements which some in the international community say are illegal, but which Israel claims are not. The outposts affected by tonight's bill were not authorized by the Government of Israel, which means many are on privately-owned Palestinian land and place settlers in particularly dangerous situations where they are a liability to the Israeli government. 

The bill was approved by the Knesset Ministerial Committee for Legislation back in November in the wake of controversy surrounding the illegal settlement of Amona which was evacuated last week. Emboldened by outcry from settlers over the evacuation and the lack of a strong position on the issue from the new US administration, the bill could impact 4,000 settlements throughout the West Bank. While this is not the first time Israel has retroactively legalized such outposts, it is the first blanket legalization. Furthermore, it is likely to have some negative effects for Israel.

First, the blanket legalization of illegal outposts sets a precedent whereby settlers and not the government drive settlement policy. This is dangerous because settlers who live in outposts often have little respect for foreign policy nuance, international law, or quid pro quo agreements between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. In the short-term the bill will likely destabilize the relationship between both parties. In the long-term, it will likely incentivize further illegal activity by settlers who have now been rewarded for acting outside the law. 

Second, the law confirms the weakness of Israel's current governing coalition. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who took steps to delay or defer the bill, ultimately could not or did not prevent it from becoming law. Israel's far-right, for its part, has an immediate victory but in the process has demonstrated its lack of long-term vision. Rather than pursue a final status agreement, or even annexation as MK Bennett has flirted with doing, the bill perpetuates the broken status quo. In so doing, it demonstrates that the far-right's vision for Israel is "more of the same" rather than a change that has a positive impact on Israelis. With the lack of a viable alternative to the current governing coalition, Israelis are stuck with a government that is unwilling to commit to meaningful progress.

Finally, the bill opens Israel up to more "lawfare" since the international community perceives the bill as an escalation in response to UN 2334. Israelis already believe that the country is unfairly targeted under international humanitarian law - a sentiment which is well-founded. But this bill makes the problem even worse. While the main message the bill sent was directed at settlers, the message it intended to send to the international community, was an assertion of legitimate control of the West Bank. The way the bill will actually come across, however, is as a provocation that confirms Israel's "rogue" status among liberal states. This is one reason Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has expressed concerns the bill could violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. While the Trump administration in general and Ambassador Haley in particular is likely to provide diplomatic cover for Israel at the UN, the US has less influence over other international legal bodies. Furthermore, reports suggest the US asked for a delay in passing the bill until after Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit to Washington next Wednesday. The bill may create frustrations in the new US administration that Israel is forcing its hand on Middle East policy.

Ultimately, the bill will likely generate blowback to a unilateral move by the Knesset rewarding behavior directed against the legal authority of the state. This conceding of power ties the Israeli government's hands in future interactions with settlers and exposes all Israelis to increased danger. Most importantly, today's action demonstrates an unprecedented level of cynicism about Israel's future. It is a surrender to a small group of extremists rather than a workable and sustainable solution to their legitimate concerns. Israel did not singlehandedly create the dispute over the West Bank. But it did single handedly make it worse by passing this bill. When hand-wringing erupts over the inevitable backlash this bill will generate, supporters of this bill will have to live with the knowledge that their actions created this self-inflicted wound that further delays the prospects for a strong, sustainable Jewish State.

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