JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed headed for a showdown with hard-core Jewish settlers Wednesday, after his ministers followed his instructions to vote against a draft bill that would have retroactively legalized illegally built settler homes in the West Bank.
The bill was defeated, 69 to 22, in the 120-seat Parliament, paving the way for the removal of five apartment buildings in Ulpana Hill, an extension of the settlement of Beit El, that were built on privately owned Palestinian land. Israel’s Supreme Court has ordered the state to demolish the buildings, home to some 30 families, by July 1.
The highly charged issue had pitted Netanyahu against the more right-wing elements within his government coalition and his own Likud Party, even as he pledged to strengthen other points of Jewish settlement.
In the end, though, after intense discussions with ministers who had expressed support for the bill over the past few days, the prime minister prevailed, avoiding entanglement with the Supreme Court and the international condemnation that the bill would inevitably have stirred.
Netanyahu now plans to relocate the five buildings, possibly by slicing them from their foundations through some feat of engineering and moving them to available land elsewhere in Beit El. In addition, he has promised to build housing for 300 more families in the settlement and cited an opinion by Israel’s attorney general stating that the Ulpana case will in no way serve as a precedent for future cases in the West Bank.
Addressing those he called his “brothers and sisters’’ in the settler movement in a statement broadcast after the vote, Netanyahu said: “I understand your pain. I share it. I met several of the families. I saw the people. I saw the children. And I would like to tell you what I told them. There is no government that supports, or will support, settlement more than my government.’’
This was Netanyahu’s first major move on the settlement issue since he expanded his power by bringing the centrist Kadima Party into his coalition last month, giving his government a mammoth 94-seat majority in the Parliament.
Settlement construction has been an acute source of friction between the Israeli government, the Obama administration and other international powers, and although the rejection of the outpost bill was partly intended to ward off international criticism, Netanyahu’s plans to expand Beit El were not likely to go down well abroad.
Nor were Netanyahu’s promises likely to assuage the settlers’ rage. Hundreds converged on Jerusalem on Wednesday to protest in front of the Supreme Court and the Parliament. Some 50 settlers staged a hunger strike here over the past week, while others arrived after a three-day march from Beit El, about 10 miles north of Jerusalem.