Israel government tested by bill to legalise settler homes

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel's government faced its biggest test since 2015 polls Wednesday with a bill to legalise thousands of West Bank settler homes that has drawn international anger and demonstrated the settler movement's power.

A preliminary vote in parliament on the bill that has deeply divided Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government was expected later Wednesday.

There has been speculation that the bill could even cause the government to collapse -- though a number of analysts caution that a compromise seems more likely for now.

Netanyahu himself opposed the bill pushed by hardline members of his coalition who defied his pleas not to move forward, while the country's attorney general says it will never hold up in court.

But those who support it say the move is urgently needed to protect a Jewish outpost in the occupied West Bank called Amona.

The outpost, where some 40 families live, is under a high court order to be demolished by December 25 because it was built on private Palestinian land.

The bill however goes far beyond legalising Amona and would allow an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Jewish homes in the West Bank built on Palestinian land to be legalised.

Palestinian landowners would be offered compensation in exchange, but Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit says the move would undermine private property laws.

US President Barack Obama's administration says it is "deeply concerned."

"This would represent an unprecedented and troubling step that's inconsistent with prior Israeli legal opinion and also break longstanding Israeli policy of not building on private Palestinian land," State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said.

The international community considers all Israeli settlements in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and the West Bank to be illegal, whether they are authorised by the government or not.

The Israeli government differentiates between those it has approved and those it has not.

The progress of the bill, approved by a committee of ministers on behalf of the government, has demonstrated the power of the settler movement.

Netanyahu's government is seen as the most right-wing in Israeli history, and key members of his coalition advocate annexing most of the West Bank while openly opposing the idea of a Palestinian state.

- Hardliner 'dictated agenda' -

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the hardline Jewish Home party and has been the driving force behind the bill, has made no secret of his position.

Last week after the election of Donald Trump as president in the United States, he called for the end of the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the basis of years of negotiations.

He said "the era of a Palestinian state is over."

The bill would require three more full parliamentary votes if it passes Wednesday's initial reading. Netanyahu's government currently controls 66 of 120 seats.

Finance minister Moshe Kahlon, whose centre-right Kulanu party holds 10 seats, will be key and he has signalled he may not vote.

Moves have however been underway to find a compromise.

Some Israeli analysts have spoken of the outsized power Bennett has accumulated with the help of the settler movement, saying it could seem Netanyahu was serving in his cabinet rather than the other way around.

Bennett's party has only eight seats in parliament.

But both have little interest in new elections for now, a number of analysts said.

"Bennett knows that it will be difficult to have a government more right-wing than the current one," a government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Hanan Cristal, a political commentator for Israeli public radio, said Bennett had "managed to dictate the government's agenda."

"That is a sufficient victory for him," he said.

Others note Israeli governments have fallen for reasons that have seemed illogical.

"That’s the starting point of all our political crises: a lack of logic," wrote Yossi Verter, columnist for Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

There are meanwhile concerns over how any evacuation of Amona will play out, with residents warning they will refuse to leave.