JERUSALEM — Right-wing leaders in the Israeli government have seized on the election of Donald Trump to push forward assertive new legislation that would legalize Jewish settlements in the West Bank built on privately owned Palestinian land.
Believing that the time to act is now, as the U.S. president-elect begins to shape his foreign policy, top Israeli ministers voted unanimously Sunday in favor of a bill that would allow Israeli settlements and outposts that were built on property owned by Palestinians to avoid court-ordered demolitions.
On Monday, Israeli politicians dug in for a fight over the legislation, which would retroactively offer legal protection to thousands of homes built both in long-established settlements and in newer wildcat outposts that were constructed on private Palestinian land.
Palestinian landowners would be given money or alternative land parcels in exchange for their seized property. Israel considers most of its settlements legal but has acknowledged that some are either built without approval by the military or were erected on private Palestinian lands.
The move by Israeli leaders is one of the first concrete responses to the Trump election on the international stage.
Trump and his advisers have signaled that the incoming administration will be more supportive of Israel than was President Obama, whose State Department has sharply criticized settlements as “an obstacle to peace,” even as the White House awarded Israel an unprecedented $38 billion in military aid over the coming decade and has staunchly defended Israel in political forums.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and the leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said the Trump victory means that “the era of the Palestinian state is over,” a direct challenge to the official government position of backing a two-state solution.
Bennett and his allies view the full legalization of the settlements built on Palestinian land as only a first step. Bennett wants Israel to formally annex the 60 percent of the West Bank where the Jewish-only settlements are located, thereby ending any prospect for a viable Palestinian state.
Speaking to foreign correspondents Monday, Bennett said the Trump election and shifting politics in Europe “provide Israel with a unique opportunity to reset and rethink everything.”
As for the idea that Israel should wait and see where Trump is going, Bennett said it is important for Israel to declare what it wants.
The draft legislation was opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the move “childish and irresponsible.”
Even so, senior members and top ministers of Netanyahu’s fellow Likud party approved a bill that their leader considers ill-timed and needlessly provocative.
Netanyahu finds himself in a tight spot.
If the draft legislation is eventually passed by the parliament — not a sure bet — the Israeli leader fears a wave of condemnation by Europe and the United Nations, where pro-Palestinian voices can insist that the settlers are “stealing” Arab-owned land with government approval.
Netanyahu is also wary of what Obama may do in his last months in office. The outgoing president, many Israelis fear, could formally outline what the Americans consider a fair resolution to the long-running conflict, including the parameters for a future Palestinian state. Obama could do this in a speech or by allowing a resolution to pass in the United Nations.
Daniel Friedmann, a former Israeli justice minister, said, “Netanyahu really wanted to avoid this.”
He said the Israeli prime minister “could stop it if he really wanted to, but he is not in an easy position, because he does not want the settlers to think that he is the one who threw it out.”
Netanyahu could still stall or derail the legislation, but the clock is ticking. The first of three readings of the bill is scheduled for Wednesday.
The State Department condemned the proposed law, saying it further endangers the prospects for peace.
“This legislation would be a dramatic advancement of the settlement enterprise, which is already gravely endangering the prospects for a two-state solution,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said on Monday. “This only makes clear the choice Israel faces between building more settlements and preserving the possibility of peace.”
Trudeau added that the State Department hopes the proposal does not become law but declined to say whether the administration plans any response if it is enacted.
The move to press ahead with the “legalization bill” was spurred by the Israeli Supreme Court, which ordered that a Jewish settlement called Amona be evacuated and demolished because a portion of it was built on privately owned Palestinian land.
On Monday, the high court rejected a government appeal for a delay and gave the Israeli military until Dec. 25 to clear the settlement. Demolition orders against other settlements built on private Palestinian land are also looming.
Today about 400,000 Jewish settlers are living on 125 settlements and 100 outposts in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on territory that Palestinians want for a future state. Most of the world considers the settlements illegal under international law. The United States calls the communities “illegitimate.” Israel disputes that.
In the past year, the Obama White House and the State Department have condemned settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem with sharply escalating rhetoric, openly questioning whether Netanyahu is truly committed to a two-state solution.
Shai Ben Yosef, a leader of the Ofra settlement, which also is partly built on private Palestinian land, told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that “Trump’s election removes that excuse of, ‘Oy vey, what are they going to do to us?’ ”
He added: “The person about to move into the White House is a man whose motivation to pressure Israel is much smaller. We can reach agreements with him about legalizing the settlements.”
Yosef said Netanyahu has often cited Washington as the reason for his insistence that settlements grow slowly, out of fear of upsetting the Americans. With Trump’s election, he said, “our government needs to drop all those old excuses.”
As usual, the Palestinians were on the sidelines as their fates were being debated in the Israeli parliament and courts. The Palestinian government condemned the move to legalize settlements built on private Palestinian land as “theft.”
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, vowed that the Palestinians would go to the U.N. Security Council to seek to block the legislation’s implementation.
He called the move “a dangerous escalation in the region.”
The move is not universally embraced in Israel, either.
Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition in parliament, said the proposed bill is a “serious stain on Israel’s law books, because it authorizes theft and robbery. There is no precedent, nothing like it, in which the Israeli government authorized a law that allows taking land from private people.”
Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit warned that legislation contradicts international law and said he wouldn’t be able to defend the bill in front of the high court.
“I think that it is too early and premature for politicians to make statements and I think it is not wise,” Israel’s former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror said of the Israelis who think they know what Trump’s intentions are toward Israel and the Palestinians.
Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.