Despite the sensitive timing, at the height of peace negotiations with the Palestinians and with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry set to arrive in the region later this week, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation on Sunday approved a bill proposed by Likud MK Miri Regev that would apply Israeli law to Jewish lands and communities in the Jordan Valley.
The committee's action set off a political storm that has exposed internal divisions within the government.
"This bill is purely motivated by diplomatic and security considerations," Regev said. "Until now, the position of all Likud governments was that under any permanent agreement with the Palestinian Authority, the communities in the Jordan Valley would be transferred to the sovereignty of the State of Israel."
The bill was passed with the support of eight ministers from the Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beytenu. Three ministers from Hatnuah and Yesh Atid voted against the bill.
Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) said, "There is a public consensus regarding Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley. We do not need to be alarmed that it will be known that it is important that the Jordan Valley remain under Israeli sovereignty in any permanent agreement."
Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) emphasized that the bill is "part of Israel's security."
The Jordan Valley is located on the eastern edge of Judea and Samaria, the area that Israel captured from Jordan in the Six-Day War in 1967. In the current Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the Jordan Valley has been a source of disagreement. Thus far, the Palestinians have rejected Israel's demand to maintain a security presence there following the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Kerry said in Washington earlier this month that the need to resolve the dispute over the Jordan Valley was "a critical threading of a needle that has to happen in order to achieve an agreement."
Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid) expressed opposition to the bill approved by the ministerial committee on Sunday.
"There is no connection between the proposal and Israeli security," Peri said on Sunday. "This proposed law, two days before the return of the U.S. secretary of state on his mission to broker peace, and at the height of sensitive negotiations, is a provocative proposal, meant only to gain to political publicity."
Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz (Hatnuah) said on Sunday, "There is no practical outcome to approving this bill other than international damage to the State of Israel."
Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) strongly criticized the bill, saying, "It ties the hands of the prime minister at a time when he is conducting in negotiations."
Most savage in her criticism was the committee's chairwoman, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah).
"This is an irresponsible bill and whoever supports it is irresponsible," Livni said. "This is a bill that will hurt the State of Israel and isolate it. I have no respect for the person who proposed this bill and I have no respect for your decision, ministers, to support it. You are only supporting the bill because you know it won't pass in the Knesset plenum. If you thought it would pass, you would oppose it."
Later, Livni posted on her Facebook page: "Amir Peretz and I will submit an appeal to the government and Yair Lapid and Yaakov Peri have announced they will do the same. Perhaps this is the reason the Likud ministers allow themselves to support the bill -- they are trying to have it both ways. To be in a government that is conducting negotiations on diplomatic settlement, a responsible government that protects the economy and Israeli security, but also to kiss up to the Likud Central Committee."
And what about the prime minister? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave Likud ministers freedom to vote and did not prevent them from backing Regev's bill. In a meeting of Likud ministers that took place prior to the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu he did not address Regev's bill. But he clarified that on diplomatic matters, it is best if there is a debate in the cabinet and not through proposed laws in the ministerial committee. "The right way to address policy matters is in a full cabinet meeting," he said.
At present, with an appeal to be submitted by Livni and Lapid, the bill is in the hands of the government secretariat and will only be discussed further at the prime minister's discretion. At this stage, Netanyahu has no intention of advancing the bill, but the very fact that it was approved by the ministerial committee benefited anyone who wanted to win political brownie points from its approval.
Regev said she was happy with the outcome. "Approval of the law by the ministerial committee for legislation at this time when negotiations are underway with the Palestinians is a type of absolute statement by the government that the communities of the Jordan Valley are a strategic and security asset for the state of Israel and will always remain in Israel's hands."
"Israel must decide to extend its sovereignty over this wide swathe of land, which is relatively sparse in terms of Palestinian population, and to say openly: The Jordan Valley will remain under Israeli sovereignty forever and ever," said MK Moti Yogev (Habayit Hayehudi).
The head of the Jordan Valley regional council, David Alhiani, welcomed the bill, but did not delude himself as to its fate: "I assume that the proposed law will not come to pass. Nevertheless, it is enough that this proposed law was approved by the ministerial committee in order to signal to the Americans that there is agreement among most ministers over extending Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley."
Meanwhile, on the Left, there was criticism of the government.
"We are talking about an absurdity that shows Netanyahu has lost control of the ministers, of the Likud and the entire diplomatic process," said MK Omer Bar-Lev (Labor).
"De facto annexation of the Jordan Valley is not only against international law, it is also an unnecessary provocation against the efforts of the American administration to advance a diplomatic process," said Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Gal-On.
Palestinians reacted with fury to the approval of the bill.
"Israel is destroying the diplomatic process," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.