BIG DEVELOPMENT: Bennett Government Dealt Critical Blow

Bennett speaks at Cabinet meeting. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Israel’s government on Monday failed to pass a bill extending legal protections for settlers in the West Bank, marking a major setback for the fragile coalition that could hasten its demise and send the country to new elections.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition remains in power. But Monday’s vote underscored the weaknesses and divisions in the fragile alliance and raised questions about how long it can survive.

The bill would give Israel legal jurisdiction over Israelis living in the West Bank. The bill has been approved every five years since 1967.

These regulations expire at the end of the month and if they are not renewed, that legal system, which Israel has cultivated for Israelis living in Yehuda and Shomrim since 1967, will be thrown into question. It could also change the legal status of the 500,000 settlers living there.

Proponents of extending the law say they are merely seeking to maintain a status quo and preserve the government’s shelf life. Opponents say extending the regulations would deepen an unfair system.

However, Monday’s vote — defeated by a 58-52 margin — went far beyond the contours of the legal debate. Instead, it served as a key test of the government’s prospects for survival, creating a paradoxical situation where some of the settlements’ biggest opponents in the government voted for the bill, while hard-line parties that support the settlements voted against it in order to weaken the government.

The coalition, made up of eight ideologically distinct parties that include both supporters and opponents of the settlements, came together last year and pledged to sidestep divisive issues that could threaten its survival. Monday’s vote showed just how difficult that mission has been.

The vote did not immediately topple the government, and it is still possible for the coalition to present a modified version of the legislation.

“As always after we lose, we will return stronger and win in the next round,” said Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the chief architect of the governing alliance, in a statement on Twitter.

But the setback indicated the government’s days could be numbered. One of the coalition’s members, the nationalist New Hope, has already threatened to bolt if the coalition cannot pass the measure. If New Hope leaves, it could give the opposition the votes it needs to trigger new elections or form a new government.

“Any coalition member who doesn’t vote for this law that is so central is an active participant in its demise,” Justice Minister Gideon Saar, leader of New Hope, said before the vote.

Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich said he was not concerned about harming his constituents in Yehuda and Shomron by halting the bill. It is better to bring down the government, form a right-wing coalition and then pass it, he said.

(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem / AP)