JERUSALEM – The Israeli parliament voted Monday against the application of Israeli civil law to Israelis in the occupied West Bank, a decision that brought the fragile coalition government closer to the fall and undermined the bipartisan justice system that distinguishes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in most of the the territory.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was unable to contain his fragile coalition to pass legislation that would allow Israeli settlers to live under civil law in the 61 percent of the West Bank under direct Israeli control, rather than the military law by which Israel governs generally Palestinians living in the same area. The vote was the first chance to extend the law before it expires at the end of the month, and the attempt failed by 58 votes to 52.
Technically a temporary measure, the application of civil law to settlers in the West Bank was first enforced after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, and has usually been extended with ease by lawmakers every half-decade since then. The bipartisan system is at the heart of allegations, long denied by the Israeli government, that Israel maintains an apartheid system in the West Bank.
Mr Bennett, a right-wing champion of the Israeli settlement movement, had pushed for the law to be extended. But the first vote failed due to disagreements between two camps in parliament.
One group included several left-wing and Arab members of Mr Bennett’s government who are ideologically opposed to the measures. While some left-wing lawmakers voted in favor of the extension to strengthen the government, others decided they couldn’t vote against their conscience, even if it would hasten the demise of their alliance.
The other involved right-wing opposition lawmakers who support former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and who in the past have automatically favored policies that help Israeli settlers — but this time he saw an opportunity to deal a blow to Bennett and increase the chances of Netanyahu rejoining. might come to power.
If at least some lawmakers don’t change course by the end of June – and there could be another vote next week – the move could topple Mr Bennett’s government; throw a political lifeline to Mr Netanyahu, the opposition leader who lost power last June; and throwing the administration of settlements in the West Bank into chaos, legal experts said.
Gideon Saar, the justice minister, hinted last week that if Parliament did not approve the extension before the end of the month, his right-wing party could leave the government and join a new alliance led by Netanyahu.
The dozens of right-wing opposition members who voted against extending the law tried to put pressure on pro-settlement government members, such as Mr. Saar, to defect to a Netanyahu-led government that could easily pass such legislation without being dependent on it. are from left-wing and Arab legislators.
The coalition, a fragile alliance of eight ideologically incompatible parties, was formed nearly a year ago because of its members’ shared desire to force Netanyahu from power. But that shared sense of purpose has been undermined in recent months. An escalation in violence in Israel and the Occupied Territories — including clashes at a holy site in Jerusalem, an increase in Arab attacks on Israelis and a severe Israeli military response in the West Bank — deepened differences between right-wing and left-wing members of the coalition, and placed the alliance under constant threat of collapse.
A right-wing coalition member defected in March, removing the government majority. One last step down could enable Mr Netanyahu to return to power as the head of what analysts say is one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history. His opponents fear that a new term in office would allow Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, to take measures that undermine the judiciary and even the prosecutors in his trial. Mr Netanyahu has denied having any such intention.
In the West Bank, officials and legal experts said not extending the legislation would turn the daily lives of Israeli settlers upside down.
“The expiration of regulations will make managing Israeli life in Judea and Samaria difficult to impossible,” Avital Sompolinsky, a deputy attorney general, wrote in a government briefing last week. Notably, not extending the regulations would significantly limit the Israeli police’s ability to operate in the West Bank and undermine Israel’s legal basis for detaining Palestinians in Israeli prisons, the briefing said.
The exact effect of the move will vary on a case-by-case basis, and it may take time to become clear, said Liron A. Libman, a former military chief prosecutor for the Israel Defense Forces and a legal expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group.
But it could affect the provision of health care, health insurance, voting rights, social security and tax collection for about half a million Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, Mr Libman added.
“In general, I think it would be chaos,” said Mr. libman. At the very least, it will take time to determine what measures can be circumvented by other existing laws or military orders. “That alone will create confusion and uncertainty,” he added.
The vote does not indicate a change of heart among Israeli politicians about the legitimacy of Israeli settlements. Most of the world considers all settlements illegal under international law. But most Israeli lawmakers support the presence of at least some settlements because they believe they were built on land promised to the Jews by God, or because they believe Israel’s security depends on its control of the West Bank.
Had Netanyahu’s allies voted in line with their pro-settler stance, the vote would have passed by a large majority. But since Netanyahu’s main goal is to return to power, his allies have refused to vote for bills proposed by the government — even if they ideologically agree with the premise of the legislation.
The intent is to convince right-wing coalition members like Mr Saar that the only way to enact right-wing legislation is to replace the current government with one led by Mr Netanyahu rather than Mr Bennett.
Members of the current coalition overcame significant differences of opinion last June over one common goal – Netanyahu’s political demise – as well as to end a prolonged period of political instability that had led to four elections in two years. .
The coalition had some initial success not only in removing Mr Netanyahu, but also in meeting the first national budget in more than three years and in deepening Israel’s growing ties to parts of the Arab world.
But its heterogeneity and slim majority made it increasingly prone to crises, with lawmakers from the left and right constantly threatening to resign if their personal demands were not met. To avoid a possible defection from the left of the coalition, Mr. Bennett often made promises that angered the right of the coalition, or vice versa, meaning that the coalition is always on the verge of falling apart.
Reporting was contributed by Hiba Yazbek and Myra Noveck in Jerusalem, and Gabby Sobelman in Rehovot, Israel.