Meeting in Jordan Valley, cabinet votes to start legalizing wildcat outpost

The cabinet approved a proposal on Sunday to begin legalizing a wildcat outpost in the Jordan Valley after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit rescinded his opposition to the plan.

Mandelblit had initially argued that the plan was being advanced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of “electoral considerations.”

The unanimous vote at a celebratory cabinet meeting outside the West Bank settlement of Petza’el came two days before Israelis head to the polls and five days after Netanyahu vowed to immediately annex the Jordan Valley if he wins Tuesday’s election.

Commencing Sunday’s session, Netanyahu said the cabinet would vote on “initiating the process of establishing a new settlement named Mevo’ot Yeriho in the Jordan Valley and that a final approval would be be given by the next government.”

Shortly before the vote to begin legalizing Mevo’ot Yeriho, the cabinet meeting paused for Mandelblit to hold a last-minute consultation with Netanyahu and national security adviser Meir Ben Shabbat.

During that conversation, Mandelblit was made privy to “recent developments in policy along with the prime minister’s and national security adviser’s assessment that there is urgency in the decision to establish the settlement by the government at this time,” a statement from the attorney general’s office said, without specifying what that information was.

A source with knowledge of their conversation said Netanyahu told the attorney general that US President Donald Trump’s peace plan will likely put such outposts at risk for evacuation and that the government must act immediately to legalize Mevo’ot Yeriho and “combat” the plan before it is introduced, ostensibly shortly after Tuesday’s election.

Mandelblit subsequently agreed to rescind his opposition to the proposal. On Thursday, the attorney general issued a legal opinion saying that it had been drawn up based on “electoral considerations” and that while the government has a right to advance decisions to strengthen Israeli settlement in the West Bank, “during an election period, the outgoing government is obliged to act with restraint when it comes to the decisions taken and the allocation of resources.”

He argued in his original legal opinion that a transitional government should avoid making irreversible decisions unless absolutely necessary and that “one must be wary” of ministers electioneering with such decisions.

The decision green-lighted by the cabinet on Sunday authorizes the defense minister and finance minister to carry out the necessary bureaucratic and budgetary steps required for the establishment of a new settlement.

This process, which includes authorizing a building plan and obtaining an order from an IDF general, can take several years to complete. Last February, the cabinet approved a proposal to begin legalizing the Havat Gilad outpost in the northern West Bank. A senior member of the community told The Times of Israel Sunday that completing the process will likely take an additional two years.

Mevo’ot Yeriho is one of 18 illegal Israeli outposts located on the map that Netanyahu used on Tuesday evening to illustrate which land he plans to annex from the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea areas.

Roughly 300 national-religious Israelis reside in the outpost, north of the Palestinian city of Jericho. It was founded in 1999 by settlers who set up wildcat agricultural communities on the land.

The outpost was built without the necessary permits, but on what is considered to be state land, making legalization a less difficult process.

While the international community considers all settlement activity illegal, Israel differentiates between legal settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state and illegal outposts built without permits, often on private Palestinian land.

The Yesha settlement umbrella council lauded Sunday’s cabinet decision, saying  in a statement that “the strategic importance of settlement in the Jordan Valley is paramount.”

“This is an important day for Israeli settlement in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], and we hope that this is just the beginning of the road to sovereignty in all of Judea and Samaria.”

The Peace Now settlement watchdog lambasted the cabinet’s decision, saying it was meant to strategically prevent the development of the nearby Palestinian city of Jericho.

The northern edge of Jericho, which is in PA controlled Area A of the West Bank, lies just 650 meters from where the border of the illegal Mevo’ot Yeriho outpost.

“This official establishment of another settlement proves yet again that the government is unencumbered by the thought of international backlash or the end to Israeli democracy on its way to annex Area C,” Peace Now said in a statement.

Separately, during the cabinet meeting Netanyahu updated ministers on his appointment of a team led by Prime Minister’s Office director Ronen Peretz that will be responsible for formulating the plan to annex the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu said his plan to apply Israeli sovereignty over all West Bank settlements will “come up” as part of the upcoming US peace initiative.

He said he is referring to “all our communities in Judea and Samaria, including the [settlement] blocs as well as areas outside the blocs, and other areas crucial to our security and to securing our legacy.”

It was not immediately clear what Netanyahu meant by this — whether such intentions have been incorporated into Washington’s plan or whether Israel will insist upon the move as part of any accord.

Netanyahu’s annexation plans have sparked a cascade of international condemnations. Critics say it could inflame the Middle East and eliminate any remaining Palestinian hope of establishing a state.

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