Outposts are again taking center stage in the settlements debate, as the Netanyahu government announces two new policies aimed at legalizing illegal outposts. In doing so, the Netanyahu government is sending a clear signal that it values settlements over negotiations, and it prefers "Greater Israel" to peace.
In March the Israeli government announced a new policy: it would demolish outpost construction on private Palestinian land, but would seek to "legalize" all other outpost construction. Previous Israeli governments consistently promised the Israeli High Court they would enforce the law against illegal outposts, but for the most part found legal pretexts to delay doing so. The Netanyahu government, in contrast, was refreshingly honest -- declaring its policy openly rather than continuing the charade.
It was clear from the outset that this new policy was a Pyrrhic victory in the fight against the outposts. It meant that for the first time the government had firmly committed to demolishing some outpost construction, but it also meant that the majority of the outposts -- whose construction is unequivocally illegal under Israeli law -- would be laundered, leading to the establishment of numerous new settlements in the West Bank. This, despite the fact that since 1992 it has been the policy of every Israeli government NOT to establish new settlements.
This new policy made news last week when it was reported that the government is making final preparations to legalize the isolated outpost of Shvut Rahel. There are at least 10 outposts that the state intends to "legalize" under this policy, involving some 650 illegal homes (approximately 3900 people).
Now Netanyahu also wants to "legalize" outpost construction on private Palestinian lands. This development is the next stage in this same outposts saga, with the Netanyahu government now obliged to update the Court by November 1 on its plans to remove outposts on private land, per the policy it announced in March (for details see Peace Now's "Six Outposts" petition). While the government's March announcement was phrased as a general policy, it appears for now that it will implement the policy only in cases where construction has been challenged in court, of which there at least 8, out of a total of at least 70 outposts located fully or partially on private land, along with many official settlements).
As that deadline nears, settlers are increasing pressure on the government and Netanyahu appears to be caving. In order "legalize" these outposts, the State will have to find a pretext to void the Palestinians' claims to the land (e.g., by declaring it absentee property -- a mechanism used over the years to seize land), or expropriate it, ostensibly for "public" use.
This battle over outposts is significant, for a number of reasons.
It shows Netanyahu doesn't want peace. Any actions related to settlements, and particularly high-profile actions like legalizing outposts, make it difficult if not impossible for the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. Legalizing outposts located deep inside the West Bank only bolsters the conclusion that Netanyahu prefers settlements to peace.
It threatens the rule of law. Rule of law means that there is one law and nobody is above it. This is the case inside Israel, where even prominent politicians are held to account for their actions. However, Netanyahu is seeking to formalize a reality in which West Bank settlers can freely break the law, knowing that the law will be ignored or adjusted to accommodate their actions. This erosion of the rule of law undermines the foundations of Israel as a democracy and as a civilized nation.
It exemplifies Israel's longstanding abuse of power in the West Bank. This effort to "legalize" illegal outposts is only the most recent, and brazen, example of what the occupation has always been about: finding "legal" pretexts to allow Israel to do whatever it wants, and what it has generally wanted has been to appease the settlers. Previous policies are no less cynical or self-serving. Like the 1979 policy declaring it illegal to take Palestinian private land for settlements, but legal take "State Land" for settlements. That policy formed the basis of the entire settlement enterprise, with Israel defining nearly 20% of the West Bank as "State Land," and using this ostensibly public resource for the exclusive benefit of settlers.
It is linked to the rise in settler terrorism. The outpost issue is set to be a major issue in Israel in the coming weeks and months, with the story focused on "to evict, or not." The settlers are putting tremendous pressure on the government, and this is playing out not only in the courts and in political circles, but also on the ground, where there has been a sharp increase in settler violence and terror. As the November 1 deadline approaches, this situation is likely to become more acute. The government's readiness to cave to the settlers sends a troubling message that tactics like intimidation of and attacks against Palestinians, peace activists, Israeli officials, and the IDF work.
It should not be allowed to distract from the bigger issue. The reality is that the Netanyahu government continues to expand settlements all over the West Bank -- in a policy that undermines the very possibility of a two-state solution. Outposts are just one small part of the picture. In some ways the situation is reminiscent of the period after the Annapolis Conference, when the U.S. allowed the issue of checkpoints/roadblocks to become the only issue on the peace agenda -- a focus that permitted settlement expansion in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem to accelerate.