Israel postpones vote on bill legalizing settlement outposts

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s government postponed a vote in parliament on Monday on a bill retroactively legalizing about 4,000 settler homes built on privately owned Palestinian land, a measure the attorney-general has said is unconstitutional.

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The legislation, which is backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, had been expected to pass in an evening session, but a filibuster threat from the opposition and discussions over its final wording slowed its progress.

Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right lawmaker who helped draft the bill, said the vote had been postponed and would probably be held on Tuesday. He told Reuters that a committee putting the final touches to the bill still had work to do.

The bill has been condemned by Palestinians as a blow to their hopes of statehood but its passage may only be largely symbolic as it contravenes Israeli Supreme Court rulings on property rights. Critics and some legal experts say it will not survive judicial challenges.

Political sources say Netanyahu had privately opposed the bill, which won preliminary parliamentary approval in November amid international denunciations and speculation in Israel that it would subsequently die a quiet death in committee hearings.

But the far-right Jewish Home party, a member of the coalition looking to draw voters from the traditional base of Netanyahu’s Likud, pressed to revive the legislation.

With Likud slipping in opinion polls, and himself under criminal investigation over allegations of abuse of office, Netanyahu would have risked alienating supporters and ceding ground to Jewish Home if he had opposed the move. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.

While the measure seems certain to stoke more international condemnation of Israeli settlements - the Obama White House termed the first vote two months ago “troubling” - Netanyahu cis unlikely to face criticism from the administration of the new U.S. president, Donald Trump.

An Israeli announcement last week of plans for 2,500 more settlement homes failed to ruffle Washington, whose spokesman responded by describing Israel as a “huge ally”.

Israeli Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit has described the new bill as unconstitutional and a breach of international law since it allows expropriation of private land in areas Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war.

The homes covered by the bill are in West Bank outposts built without Israeli government approval.

Under the new law, settlers could remain on the land if they built there without prior knowledge of Palestinian ownership or if homes were constructed at the state’s instruction. Palestinian owners would receive financial compensation.

Most countries view all Israeli settlement in occupied territory as illegal. Israel disputes this.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Kevin Liffey