Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated on Wednesday that he would give his backing for a proposal to absorb four West Bank settlements and a settlement bloc into the Jerusalem municipality, while also removing around 100,000 Palestinians from the city’s census.
The settlements in question are Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, Beitar Illit and Efrat, along with the Etzion bloc of settlements. Some are fairly deep in the West Bank, more than 10 kilometers (six miles) from Jerusalem, and are currently home to some 130,000 Israelis.
According to the proposal, initiated by Likud MK Yoav Kisch and backed by Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, residents of those settlements would be able to vote in Jerusalem municipal elections, but the settlements would not be under full Israeli sovereignty.
The move would make Jerusalem’s official demographic balance significantly more Jewish and would “bring back Jerusalem’s status as a symbol,” according to the proposal’s preamble.
Kisch said residents of the settlements in question would maintain municipal autonomy through independent regional councils. He indicated they would vote in four local elections: for Jerusalem mayor, for a Jerusalem municipality council, for the head of their regional council and for members of said council.
Under the same proposal, around 100,000 people living in Palestinian neighborhoods outside the security barrier surrounding the city would be removed from the city’s census, with a new municipality built for them.
Netanyahu reportedly told Kisch to move ahead with the proposal following the Knesset summer recess, Haaretz reported Wednesday.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, the Old City and the West Bank from Jordan in 1967, and extended sovereignty to the Old City and East Jerusalem in 198 in a move never recognized by the international community.
Most also consider the West Bank settlements illegal under international law, as well as the formal annexation of land seized during war. Israel has maintained that the settlements are not illegal, saying that the land is disputed. Israel has controlled the West Bank since capturing it in the 1967 Six Day War, but has never moved to annex any of the territory beyond extending sovereignty to East Jerusalem. It did later apply Israeli law to the Golan Heights, captured from Syria.
Most Israeli leaders maintain that the largest settlement blocs in the West Bank will become part of Israel in any future peace deal.
The proposal comes amid tensions in Jerusalem over the Temple Mount. Following the July 14 terror attack at the holy site by Arab Israeli gunmen that killed two Israeli policemen, Israel closed the compound for two days and set up metal detectors around the site to bolster security. That move was fiercely protested by Palestinians, who have held daily demonstrations around the compound.
On Tuesday, Israel removed the metal detectors. On Wednesday, it removed the rest of the security measures, including metal railings and scaffolding, answering a list of demands by Muslim authorities who administer the holy site.
Netanyahu has come under fire by the right-wing for agreeing to take down the security measures, moving instead to install high-resolution cameras capable of detecting hidden objects at the holy site.
The anger was most evident on the front page of the free daily Israel Hayom, which has for years backed Netanyahu, with a headline castigating the premier’s “display of feebleness” and his “helpless” response to the Temple Mount crisis.
Israel Hayom, which is owned by US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, has for years been staunchly loyal to Netanyahu until recently when it appeared, according to media analysts, to give more favorable coverage to Netanyahu rival Naftali Bennett, the head of the nationalistic Jewish Home party.
Earlier Wednesday, Knesset lawmakers approved in its first reading a bill that would require a special two-thirds support of the Knesset to relinquish any part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians under a future peace accord.
After hours of debates, and as the Knesset wrapped up its spring session Wednesday ahead of its three-month summer break, the bill proposed by Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli cleared the plenum with 51 MKs in favor, 41 opposed.
The bill, an amendment to the Basic Law on Jerusalem, would make it harder for any government to divide the city by requiring 80 of the 120 MKs to support giving up any part of Jerusalem to the sovereignty of a foreign power.
“This bill was designed to protect the unity of Jerusalem in the face of delusional, messianic steps from the left side of the [political] map,” said Moalem-Refaeli on Wednesday.
The bill prevents “the possibility of concessions in Jerusalem, even parts [of the city],” she said. “Jerusalem will not be on the negotiating table.”
Currently, the Jerusalem Law, passed in 1980 and amended in 2000, states: “No authority that is stipulated in the law of the State of Israel or of the Jerusalem Municipality may be transferred either permanently or for an allotted period of time to a foreign body, whether political, governmental or to any other similar type of foreign body.”
With no provision in the Basic Law specifying how it can be amended, it currently can be overturned with a simple majority.
The bill must still pass two more readings and at least another committee write-up in the Knesset to become law.
Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett has touted the bill as making the division of Jerusalem “impossible.”
A spokesman for the Jewish Home party said last month that the proposed legislation was intended to strengthen Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position vis-a-vis the new administration of US President Donald Trump.
In May, hours before Trump arrived in Israel during his first major foray abroad as president, Netanyahu declared that Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem’s holy sites was not up for negotiation and said the city will always be Israel’s capital.
Trump has expressed his desire to reach a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, which he has described as the “ultimate deal.”
In recent months the United Nations cultural body UNESCO has passed a series of resolutions that diminish or deny the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and refer to Israel as an occupying power.