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Israel closes in on deal that could legalise 4,000 settler units

By AFP - Dec 05,2016 - Last updated at Dec 05,2016

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu closed in on a deal with a key rival Monday that could lead to approval of controversial legislation legalising nearly 4,000 settler housing units in the occupied West Bank.

The bill has drawn harsh criticism internationally, with its main backer, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, calling it the start of Israel's eventual annexation of most of the West Bank.

It would still need preliminary approval and three full votes at Israel's Knesset, or parliament, but an agreement between Netanyahu and Bennett would likely assure passage.

The bill has severely tested Netanyahu's coalition, seen as the most right-wing in Israeli history. A previous version was given preliminary approval last month.

"With this law, the state of Israel has moved from the path leading to the creation of a Palestinian state to the path leading to [Israeli] sovereignty" over most of the West Bank, Bennett told army radio.

Netanyahu told a meeting of members of his Likud party that "we have worked very hard to find a solution", while Israeli media reported that a compromise was at hand.

The international community considers all settlements in Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem and the West Bank to be illegal, whether they are authorised by the government or not.

The Israeli government differentiates between those it has approved and those it has not.

The agreement would see a wildcat Jewish outpost in the West Bank, known as Amona, removed from the bill.

Amona, where around 40 settler families live, is under a court order to be evacuated by December 25 since it was built on Palestinian land.

Some members of Netanyahu’s coalition had previously said they could not support the bill if Amona remained part of it because of the court ruling against it.

The agreement will instead see Amona residents temporarily moved to nearby land that Israeli officials describe as abandoned, until a permanent solution is found.

Rights groups, however, say that land too is owned by Palestinians and that the move would violate international law.

The bill’s progress so far has alarmed many in the international community.

The UN envoy for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, said the legislation “has the objective of protecting illegal settlements built on private Palestinian property in the West Bank.

“It is a very worrying initiative. I encourage Israeli legislators to reconsider such a move that would have far-reaching legal consequences across the occupied West Bank.”

Bennett, from the religious nationalist Jewish Home party, is among members of Netanyahu’s coalition who have made no secret of opposing a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu says he still backs a two-state solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

According to settlement watchdog Peace Now, the bill, if Amona is removed, would legalise some 3,881 housing units.

Most of the homes are located in Israeli-approved settlements but were built on Palestinian land. Around 750 are located in outposts which Israel has not yet approved, Peace Now says.

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