Minister: Vote on renewing civil law for settlers a test for coalition survivability

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar warned Tuesday that the government’s future could depend on the passage of a technical but controversial bill that would renew a law extending Israeli civil and criminal legal protections to Israelis living in the West Bank.

The bill, which is opposed by dovish and Islamist politicians within Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition, was put on the backburner for a week Monday after coalition leaders failed to whip up enough support for the measure.

“Next week will be a test, whether this coalition wants to exist or does not want to exist,” Sa’ar told Kan public radio, describing the measure as “essential.”

The bill would renew an emergency measure extending Israeli criminal law and certain key civil laws — such as income tax and health insurance — to Israelis living in the West Bank. Though Israel has not annexed the West Bank, the measure ensures that settlers living there are treated as though they live in Israel in most matters, without extending those same legal protections to Palestinians.

Originally enacted in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, the law remains an “emergency measure” that must be renewed every five years. Last passed in 2017, it is set to expire at the end of June.

Sa’ar, whose hard-line New Hope party supports settlements and opposes Palestinian statehood, told Kan that unless the measure passes, Israeli settlers will become subject to Israel’s military justice system, which is based on Jordanian law. He said such a situation had never occurred.

A police officer and an IDF soldier guard outside the ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit, which is under a week-long lockdown due to a high rate of coronavirus infections, July 8, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It will create chaos for justice matters in Judea and Samaria,” he said, using a biblical term for the West Bank. “It will harm the territory’s connection to Israel and Israeli law and will harm some 500,000 Israelis living in Judea and Samaria.”

While the Likud-led right-religious bloc within the opposition supports the renewal in principle, it has vowed to not join the majority to pass it, pledging to oppose any government-sponsored legislation regardless of content.

Sa’ar described the opposition’s refusal as “not just unprecedented but also dangerous,” but appeared to put the onus on members of his own coalition to line up behind the measure.

“Any coalition member who votes against this is saying ‘I don’t want this government,’” he said, adding that he had explained its importance to other party leaders.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, center, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, in the Knesset on May 9, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There are some laws you want to pass, and nothing happens if they don’t, and laws that must be passed. This law is in the second category,” he said.

Sitting at a tight 60-60 seat parity with the opposition in the 120-member Knesset, the big-tent coalition incorporates parties from across the political spectrum, including the Islamist Ra’am party. While Ra’am has supported contentious measures in the past, the party has complained that the coalition has failed to come through on promised earmarks, causing its four MKs to lose support on the street and making them less amenable to coalition demands. The party temporarily froze its participation in parliamentary activities last month in protest over the state’s handling of unrest on the Temple Mount.

Ra’am is currently tight-lipped about how it would vote on the bill if the coalition were pressed.

Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas (C) delivers a statement to the press at the Knesset, with fellow party MKs Walid Taha (L) and Mazen Ghanaim (R) standing by, May 11, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Monday, Sa’ar pulled the proposal from the Knesset, saying in a statement that Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid asked him to push the vote back by a week, “in order to maximize efforts to pass this vital law.”

The government appeared to attempt to put one Ra’am complaint to bed, with Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman agreeing to fund another 35 community imams through the Interior Ministry.

Bennett’s coalition has struggled to keep its MKs and parties in check in recent weeks, bringing the government to the brink of collapse amid a long-running series of tiffs over policy positions and security tensions.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked holds a press conference at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, March 13, 2022. (Roy Alima/Flash90 )

On Tuesday, Bennett’s Yamina party appeared to open a new front, criticizing Liberman’s efforts to cut funding for ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, which he accused of promoting idleness.

“This coalition is built on agreements and we will fulfill our duties and ensure Torah students are not harmed,” Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said in a video recorded alongside fellow Yamina politician Nir Orbach, outside a government-run religious high school in Zichron Yaakov.