‘Land theft.” “Counter-productive to Israel’s core national interests.” “A lose-lose policy.”
From across the Jewish spectrum this week, a wide swath of groups on the left, in the center and commentators on the center-right reacted in harsh terms to Israel’s passage late Monday evening of the controversial and historic “regulation law.” The bill marks first time the Knesset has legalized Israeli homes in wildcat West Bank settlements that are built illegally on private Palestinian land.
The bill represents an attempt by Israel to impose “retroactive eminent domain,” a government’s right to confiscate property for municipal purposes, said Marshall Breger, a professor of law at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and longtime activist in the national Republican Party. “Retroactive legislation of any kind is always held to a high standard … particularly if it involves taking of property.”
The passage of the bill comes just a week before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to meet President Donald Trump at the White House. And it tests, in the first weeks of the Trump administration, the relationship between the two leaders as well as the wider policy considerations when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The White House, saying it was reserving judgment on the new law, did not comment directly on it. Instead, it pointed to its statement last week that said the expansion of West Bank settlements “may not be helpful” to achieving Israel-Palestinian peace.
That phrasing, while not adopting the harsher language often used by the Obama administration on Israel’s settlement building, marked a shift from what appeared to be the Trump administration’s hands-off stance toward the settlements.
“[The new law] will require the Trump administration to pick sides,” said Yuval Shany, a professor of law at the Hebrew University law school. “It remains to be seen whether it will stand with Israel, pretty much alone, or whether it wants to allow international initiatives to move forward,” as the Obama administration did during the December United Nations vote condemning Israeli settlements, Shany said.
“This puts the administration into a dilemma I imagine it would want to avoid.”
New York attorney Seymour Reich, former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, did not comment directly on the bill, but referred to comments made by Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that he would not defend the law in the Supreme Court. For that reason, Reich said, “the bill may be voided by the Israeli Supreme Court.” And, Reich said, “there is a danger that it may go to the International Court of Justice,” where the bill is unlikely to be affirmed.
Another attorney active in Jewish communal work here, while declining to comment for attribution on the bill, also referred to Mandelblit’s comments as signaling the likelihood that the Supreme Court would overturn the bill.
In an indication of the attorney general’s opposition to the bill, which he has argued would openly curtail property rights of Palestinians in the West Bank in a way that contravenes the protections granted to occupied populations under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Mandelblit was reportedly considering the unprecedented move of testifying against the state in the High Court of Justice over the law.
The law, which was shepherded by the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, passed the Knesset by a 60-52 vote in a raucous late-night session, drew a round of harsh criticism from Jewish organizations.
The Anti-Defamation League expressed “strong concern” over the regulation law.
“As an organization with a long history of advocating for the State of Israel both in the U.S. and internationally, we recognize the complexity of issues relating to Israeli settlements. We believe that these issues must be considered and resolved in a fair and reasonable manner as part of a negotiated two-state solution,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “However, it is imperative that the Knesset recognizes that passing this law will be harmful to Israel’s image internationally and could undermine future efforts to achieving a two-state solution.”
Carole Nuriel, director of the ADL’s Israel office, added that the measure “may also trigger severe international legal repercussions,” based on the reasoning that retroactively legalizing thousands of homes illegally built on private property is a violation of international law and would be difficult to defend in both Israeli and international courts.”
American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris said the AJC was “deeply disappointed” about the bill’s passage and called on the Supreme Court to “reverse this misguided legislation.”
“The controversial Knesset action, ahead of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meeting with President Trump in Washington, is misguided and likely to prove counterproductive to Israel’s core national interests,” Harris said.
J Street, the pro-peace, pro-Israel lobbying group, said the bill “legalizes land theft and undermines Israel’s fundamental respect for the rule of law. It gives a green light to further settlement expansion, seizure of Palestinian land and other steps designed to prevent the future creation of a Palestinian state … it was passed over the objections of virtually every voice of common sense in the international community and Israeli society.”
The Zionist Organization of America, which appeared to be the only major group to support the new law, called the bill “honorable and rational.”
In a statement, the group said the law “protects Jewish families living in homes in Judea and Samaria built with government backing, on barren vacant property that had no absentee land claims at the time these Jewish communities were built. … Palestinian-Arab land claims that can be proven will receive compensation of 125 percent of the land’s value, or alternate parcels of land. The law will thus generously compensate any proven claims by Palestinian-Arabs while ending the horrible trauma to Jewish families of being evicted and uprooted from their homes and communities in the lawful Jewish homeland.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a statement “the current Israeli government said ‘no’ to a future where Israel can live in security, peace and prosperity with their Palestinian neighbors. We are disheartened, concerned, but, alas, not surprised that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government today voted to ‘legalize’ illegal Israeli settlements that are built on privately owned Palestinian land. This action makes more difficult the achievement of a two-state solution and significantly undermines Israeli democracy. It is a lose-lose policy.”
Stephen Flatow, an attorney in New Jersey whose daughter Alisa was killed in a terrorist bombing in Israel in 1995, said he was not in favor of the bill. “I think it’s not a good bill,” he said, “because Israel is still playing to the West.” In other words, Israel should take world opinion into consideration. The bill “gives the West something else to peck at.”
But Flatow added, “The right of Jews to build throughout the Land of Israel has always been a basic principle of the Zionist movement. Israel’s diplomatic and political considerations are of course important, but at the same time we should never lose sight of the Jewish right to
build in areas that have been central to the Jewish homeland for more than 3,000 year.”
Kenneth Bob, president of Ameinu, a “grassroots, progressive” Zionist organization, called the bill “anathema to Israel’s fundamental values and interests. It belies the claims of the current Israeli government that it is committed to a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.”
Ameinu CEO Gideon Aronoff added: “This law legalizes the theft of Palestinian land by empowering the government — one with no representation at all from Palestinian residents of the West Bank — to retroactively change the legal status of private Palestinian property.”
Michele Chabin contributed reporting from Jerusalem.