Israel is no exception to the fever for self-inflicted political crisis sweeping the democratic world. On Sunday, a Knesset ministerial committee endorsed a bill that would allow settlers to remain in Amona, a West Bank outpost that Israel’s Supreme Court ordered evacuated by December 25th, 2016 in a 2014 decision. On Monday, Israel’s Supreme Court issued another order, rejecting the government’s request to extend the evacuation deadline. As the Jerusalem Post notes, one way out of this impasse is for the Knesset to retroactively legalize the outpost—but this would be a highly provocative move, and is something that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes.
Amona has been a source of controversy in Israel for over a decade, and for good reason: The legalization of the outpost, which the Israeli Supreme Court determined had been illegally constructed on Palestinian-owned land, would erode the court’s authority and encourage additional settlement beyond existing blocs. It would set a precedent for construction and legalization beyond the areas of Israeli settlement that George W. Bush acknowledged in his 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon, which communicated limits on US acceptance of settlement expansion that successive Israeli governments have largely abided by. A legalized Amona would deal another blow to an already dormant peace process, earn Israel international scorn, and give additional cover to Palestinian rejectionists.
But Amona’s legalization would also be a more-than-symbolic win for the settlement movement, and a political win for pro-settlement leaders in the Knesset. Amona is bringing Netanyahu into open conflict with hardline pro-settlement Likud members of the Knesset, as well as right-wing coalition partners like Naftali Bennett.
Under a more typical representative system, it would be clear exactly who has the final say over fundamental questions of national existence. Israel, however, does not have a constitution. When the courts, the legislature, the head of government, and that head of government’s own ministers disagree on how, where, and whether the state should apply its laws, there’s no set, codified procedure for deciding who’s right, or where final authority lies. Instead, the parties are guided by pragmatism and precedent.
Is Bennett really willing to collapse one of the most right-wing governments in Israel history over a tiny, remote outpost? Probably not—his party could lose support or even trigger a national backlash if it’s willing to put Amona ahead of the country’s international standing and political stability. Is Netanyahu willing to enforce a Knesset measure to legalize the settlement or, conversely, to clear the settlement by force before December 25th? Either of the more hard-line options carries certain domestic and international risks, which is why it’s possible the prime minister will work out some kind of compromise, like moving the settlement’s families to an undeveloped area in the nearby settlement of Ofra.
This is not the first time Israel has experienced a constitutional crisis without the benefit of having a constitution to guide it, and it certainly won’t be the last. But the fight over Amona is happening within an especially fraught context. The election of Donald Trump has plunged US-Israel relations into a new period of uncertainty, and may have altered the calculations of the current US president. If his former Secretary of State had been elected, the outgoing Barack Obama could expect at least some degree of continuity with his policies towards Israel, which were often marked by increased American vigilance towards Israeli settlement activity. Even if Hillary Clinton hinted at a more centered policy towards Israel over the course of her presidential campaign, the Obama administration’s opposition towards settlement expansion might vanish under a President Trump, who counts the president of the American Friends of Bet-El as one of his top Israel advisors and whose party platform includes no mention of a two-state outcome between Israel and the Palestinians.
If Obama wants his policies on Middle East peace to survive beyond January 20th, his best bet is either a speech in which he lays out his preferred parameters for a final status agreement—something that could include the unprecedented step of issuing a map detailing the US’s preferred borders and land swaps—or a resolution at the United Nations Security Council that would give Obama’s peace policies the force of international law.
A fight over Amona might not play into Obama’s calculations over the coming months—the outpost might be too small and obscure an issue to spur an American president on its own. At the same time, a festering controversy over Amona could vividly illustrate the stakes of US policy inaction. Pro-settlement figures in Israel could sense a new window of opportunity under a Republican president. And while the fight over Amona could end with a negotiated outcome and a step back from the political brink, Israel’s ad hoc system for dealing with constitutional crises could produce a very different result next time.