Israel’s Government Teeters Again, Losing Vote on Law that Supports West Bank Settlers

JERUSALEM — The Israeli Parliament voted on Monday against applying Israeli civilian law to Israelis in the occupied West Bank, a decision that edged the fragile coalition government closer to collapse and undermined the two-tier legal system that distinguishes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in most of the territory.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was unable to keep his tenuous coalition in line to pass the legislation, which allows Israeli settlers to live according to civilian law in the 61 percent of the West Bank that falls under direct Israeli control, instead of the military law by which Israel generally governs Palestinians living in the same area. The vote was the first chance to extend the law before it expires at the end of the month, and the effort failed by 58 votes to 52.

Technically a temporary measure, the application of civilian law to settlers in the West Bank was first enforced after Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967, and has usually been extended with ease by lawmakers every half decade since. The two-tier system is at the heart of accusations, long denied by the Israeli government, that Israel operates an apartheid-like system in the West Bank.

Mr. Bennett, who is a right-wing champion of the Israeli settlement movement, had pushed for the law to be extended. But the first vote failed because of dissent from two camps within Parliament.

One group included several leftist and Arab members of Mr. Bennett’s government who are ideologically opposed to the measures. Even though some left-wing lawmakers voted in favor of the extension in order to strengthen the government, others decided they could not vote against their conscience, even if it hastened the demise of their alliance.

The other involved right-wing opposition lawmakers who support former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in the past would automatically favor policies that help Israeli settlers — but this time saw an opportunity to deal a blow to Mr. Bennett and raise the chances that Mr. Netanyahu could return to power.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, in the Parliament last month.Credit…Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press

If at least some lawmakers do not change course by the end of June — and another vote could come as soon as next week — the move could topple Mr. Bennett’s government; throw a political lifeline to Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition who lost power last June; and place the governance of West Bank settlements in chaos, legal experts said.

Gideon Saar, the justice minister, hinted last week that if Parliament did not enact the extension by the end of the month, his right-wing party could leave the government and join a new alliance led by Mr. Netanyahu.

The dozens of right-wing opposition members who voted against extending the law were seeking to put pressure on pro-settlement members of the government like Mr. Saar to defect to a Netanyahu-led government that could easily pass such legislation without relying on leftist and Arab lawmakers.

A fragile alliance of eight ideologically incompatible parties, the coalition was formed nearly a year ago because of its members’ shared desire to force Mr. Netanyahu from power. But that shared sense of purpose was undermined in recent months. An escalation in violence across Israel and the occupied territories — including clashes at a holy site in Jerusalem, a rise in Arab attacks on Israelis and a heavy Israeli military response in the West Bank — exacerbated differences between the right- and left-wing members of the coalition, and placed the alliance under constant threat of collapse.

One right-wing member of the coalition defected in March, removing the government’s majority. Just one more resignation could allow Mr. Netanyahu to return to power as the head of what analysts say would be one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history. His opponents fear a new term in power would allow Mr. Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, to take measures undermining the judiciary and even the prosecutors in his court case. Mr. Netanyahu has denied that he has any such intention.

In the West Bank, officials and legal experts said that a failure to extend the legislation would upend daily life for Israeli settlers.

The Tekoa settlement, east of Bethlehem.Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

“The expiration of the regulations will make the management of Israeli life in Judea and Samaria difficult to impossible,” Avital Sompolinsky, a deputy attorney general, wrote in a government briefing last week. In particular, the failure to extend regulations would considerably limit the Israeli police’s ability to work in the West Bank and undermine Israel’s legal basis for jailing Palestinians inside Israeli jails, the briefing added.

The exact effect of the move would differ from case to case, and may take time to become clear, said Liron A. Libman, a former chief military prosecutor for the Israeli Army, and a legal expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group.

But it may affect the provision of health care, health insurance, voting rights, social security and tax collection for roughly half a million Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, Mr. Libman added.

“Generally, I think it would be chaos,” Mr. Libman said. At the very least, it will take time to ascertain what measures can be circumvented by other existing laws or military orders. “That alone will cause confusion and uncertainty,” he added.

The vote does not indicate a change of heart among Israeli politicians about the legitimacy of Israeli settlements. Most of the world considers all settlements illegal under international law. But most Israeli lawmakers back the presence of at least some settlements, because they believe they are built on land promised to Jews by God, or because they think Israel’s security depends on its control of the West Bank.

Had Mr. Netanyahu’s allies voted in line with their pro-settler stance, the vote would have passed by a large majority. But since Mr. Netanyahu’s main goal is to return to power, his allies have refused to vote in favor of any draft laws proposed by the government — even if they agree ideologically with the premise of the legislation.

The intention is to persuade right-wing coalition members like Mr. Saar that the only way to enact right-wing legislation is by replacing the current government with one led by Mr. Netanyahu rather than Mr. Bennett.

Gideon Saar, right, the justice minister, hinted last week that if Parliament did not enact the extension by the end of the month, his right-wing party could leave the government and join a new alliance led by Mr. Netanyahu.Credit…Pool photo by Menahem Kahana

The members of the current coalition overcame their considerable differences last June because of one shared goal — Mr. Netanyahu’s political downfall — and also to end a prolonged period of political instability that had led to four elections in two years.

The coalition had some initial success, not only removing Mr. Netanyahu but passing the first national budget in more than three years and deepening Israel’s growing ties with parts of the Arab world.

But its heterogeneity and slender majority made it increasingly prone to crisis, with lawmakers from its left and right constantly threatening to resign if their personal demands were not met. To stave off a potential defection from the coalition’s left, Mr. Bennett often made promises that angered the coalition’s right, or vice versa, meaning that the coalition is always on the verge of disintegration.

Reporting was contributed by Hiba Yazbek and Myra Noveck in Jerusalem, and Gabby Sobelman in Rehovot, Israel.

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