x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Netanyahu in political balancing act

Has to satisfy domestic and foreign players

TEL AVIV // With early elections likely this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting a political high-wire act.

On the one hand, the right-wing premier must show his pro-settler credentials. On the other hand, in the face of widespread illegal Jewish construction in the occupied West Bank, Mr Netanyahu needs to prove at home and abroad that he is committed to law and order.

Late on Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu said he would provide the needed approvals to legalise three unauthorised Jewish outposts in the West Bank and save another outpost from a demolition order.

That statement came a day after the prime minister cancelled a military order issued by his centrist defence minister to evacuate a building in the volatile West Bank town of Hebron that was illegally occupied by settlers.

But on Wednesday he gave the green light for the evacuation in a move analysts said aimed at avoiding international condemnation as well as salvaging his defence minister's public image after he had initially contradicted his minister, Ehud Barak.

For Mr Netanyahu, advancing the settlement movement in the West Bank is more than a long-time ideological quest, analysts said.

The premier is also seeking to bolster support among settlers and their backers to appease pro-settler coalition partners. Additionally, he may be bidding to weaken any possible challenge from political rivals within his Likud party who may be aiming to replace him.

Yaron Ezrahi, a political-science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said: "If he loses key coalition partners like Barak and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, he will lose his capacity to govern and that could spur another Likud primary and general election."

Yesterday, Israeli media speculated several top Likud members want the party's leadership post and are trying to draw support from right-wing extremists within the movement, despite no indication Mr Netanyahu plans to exit the political arena any time soon.

Moshe Yaalon, the vice prime minister and a former army chief, told a gathering of Likud activists on Monday he plans to run for the party's leadership.

"I certainly see myself leading the Likud after Netanyahu," he said.

The last Likud primary took place in January, when Mr Netanyahu garnered 77 per cent of the vote while Moshe Feiglin, a far-right settler activist, drew the rest.

Despite Mr Netanyahu's clear victory, analysts have said the influence held by Mr Feiglin within the party is spurring Mr Netanyahu to cater more to the settlers and their supporters in the Likud.

The next general elections are not due until next year but some Israeli commentators have speculated they may occur sooner, partly because Mr Netanyahu may want to take advantage of his popularity.

The premier may also be looking to avoid any popular backlash against his government's economic and social policies following massive demonstrations against the cost of living last summer and further anticipated such protests in the coming months, according to analysts.

In the meantime, though, the premier may find it challenging to implement his pledge this week for the legalisation of some West Bank outposts.

The international community considers all settlements and outposts as illegal. Israel, however, views about 120 West Bank Jewish communities as legal and 100 smaller outposts as having been built without state authorisation. But anti-settlement activists say the prime minister will not have an easy time legalising the three outposts mentioned in Wednesday's statement - namely, Sansana, Bruchin and Rehalim, all built illegally on what Israel defines as state land.

The Israeli Supreme Court in recent years has ordered against any building in those three outposts pending the hearing of petitions demanding they either be dismantled or authorised.

The government cannot as easily turn a blind eye towards construction in those outposts due to the court orders, spurring settlers to pressure Mr Netanyahu to legalise the sites, said Dror Etkes, a veteran anti-settlement activist who has filed one of the petitions.

Only two unauthorised outposts have ever been legalised by the Israeli government since Israel occupied the West Bank the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Rather than risking international condemnation by declaring the outposts as new settlements, they were authorised simply by adding them as extended neighbourhoods of already-established nearby settlements, Mr Etkes said.

That would be harder this time, though. According to Mr Etkes, Sansana, Bruchin and Rehalim are not in the judicial area of any settlement and adding them as extensions to settlements that are kilometres away would be more complex. On the other hand, Mr Netanyahu would not rush to declare them as new settlements because that would draw criticism from abroad.

"Netanyahu is trying to please the settlers but doesn't want to do it in a way that he'll be portrayed as a peace refusenik," Mr Etkes said.