Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is actively engaging law enforcement officials and his own coalition in an effort to cement support for his plan to relocate the homes of 30 families in the Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El, just weeks before a court-mandated deadline for their evacuation expires.
On Sunday, Netanyahu said the "outpost arrangement bill" (also known as the High Court bypass bill) would effectively overturn the court order, but would put Israel in legal jeopardy internationally. He asked Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein to make sure his proposed solution did not set a precedent that would endanger the entire settlement enterprise.
During their meeting, Netanyahu instructed Weinstein to come up with a legal mechanism that would prevent anti-settlement activists from citing the Ulpana case in future petitions to the High Court.
"If we capitulate in Beit El, we would have to relinquish several thousand more housing units," Netanyahu said. "I refuse to set this kind of precedent. I demand a solution, otherwise, there will be no other choice but to move ahead with the outpost arrangement bill [which would retroactively legalize the Ulpana homes]."
Netanyahu over the weekend announced his plans to relocate the disputed apartment blocks and build more housing units to compensate for the evacuation. On Sunday he reiterated his commitment to the settlement enterprise, saying there would soon be "a thousand more residents in Beit El."
Netanyahu explained that his idea of constructing ten homes for every home that is relocated would apply to each housing unit in each of the five disputed buildings. This would result in 300 new housing units in Beit El – 10 for each family (rather than for each block). These units would be available for "immediate occupancy."
The High Court of Justice ordered the state to demolish the five structures in Beit El's Ulpana neighborhood by July 1, saying they had been built on privately owned Palestinian land. The court also refused the state's request to hold further hearings on the case. The state had previously vowed to voluntarily remove the homes by May 1 but failed to follow through on its promise largely due to fear of political fallout.
Just hours after Netanyahu announced his relocation plan, he was met with a barrage of questions from Likud ministers during a party caucus. Referring to the outpost arrangement bill, Netanyahu said, "It is always possible to resolve this through legislation, but that comes with a price, including in the international arena." That bill is scheduled to go up for a vote in the Knesset on Wednesday.
Netanyahu outlined a three-pronged approach that could serve as an alternative to Knesset legislation: physically disassembling the homes and relocating them; increasing the number of housing units; and making sure the removal of the homes does not serve as a legal precedent.
"If these three things get the necessary approval in the coming days, we would be in a good shape," Netanyahu told the ministers. Netanyahu further said that the physical removal of the homes would be achieved by means of sawing machines, unlike the method used to move Tel Aviv's landmark Templer buildings while keeping them intact.
Although the attorney-general is still deliberating Netanyahu's plan, according to an Army Radio report, Weinstein has already expressed certain reservations about the new site of the homes, a defunct military base. Weinstein has apparently questioned the legality of constructing civilian homes on property that has been originally designated for military use.
Top officials at the State Prosecutor's Office held a marathon session on Sunday night to discuss the various legal implications surrounding the Ulpana controversy. Experts on international law also attended the meeting, as did military experts and Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser. The participants also weighed in on the legal ramifications of relocating the homes to a military base. The state prosecutors in attendance made it clear that the High Court of Justice ruling on the Ulpana case cannot serve as a binding legal precedent. It is based on a the state's decision from 2011 to voluntarily remove the disputed homes, and thus cannot prejudice future government policy on demolishing homes built on private Palestinian property, they said.
Meanwhile, politicians are already bracing for Netanyahu's decision. The hard-core members of the Likud are lobbying the party's ministers to support the various arrangement bills, while the Prime Minister's Office is trying to have the measures shelved. Relations between Coalition Chairman Ze'ev Elkin (Likud) and Netanyahu appear to have been strained as a result of the Ulpana affair as well.
Some far-right members of the Likud Central Committee met on Sunday to discuss their next move. Among the participants are the head of the Jewish Leadership Movement, Moshe Feiglin and Shevach Stern, who is a top official in the Yesha Council (founded as a council for the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria), Effie Eitam, who heads the religious-Zionist Achi faction, and the head of the Samaria Regional Council's Public Advocacy Division, Yossi Dagan. During the meeting, which was designed to present a unified front against the evacuation, a decision was made to push forward the proposed legislation to legalize the disputed homes. After the meeting the participants announced that during the next primary season they would withhold support for any Likud MK who votes against the proposed legislation on Wednesday.
Yisrael Beitenu and Shas ministers are also under pressure to support the legalization. While the coalition leadership announced party discipline would not be enforced, there is still doubt as to whether cabinet minister would also be allowed to vote their conscience, as the government has yet to issue an official statement on the voting procedures.
In an interview with Kol Chai Radio on Sunday, Yaakov (Katzeleh) Katz (National Union) shared a conversation he recently had with Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), who reportedly told him that all Shas cabinet ministers would vote for the arrangement measures. "If members are allowed to vote their conscience, the party would vote for the bill," one Shas MK said.
Yair Lapid, the journalist-turned-politician who recently formed the new "Yesh Atid" (There is a Future) party, commented on the recent controversy on his Facebook page. "The evacuation of Ulpana Hill is a tragedy; good Israelis, who are also good Zionists, are forced out of their homes. But this debate is not about the Right or the Left - neither of which is satisfied by the decision - but about the rule of law," Lapid wrote.
Residents from the Ulpana neighborhood held a march Monday, saying they plan to reach Jerusalem and picket the Knesset ahead of Wednesday's vote that may determine the fate of their homes.