Pro-settler MPs to play key role in new Israel govt

Israel's new ruling coalition, which is to be sworn in on Monday, is likely to strengthen the hand of the Jewish settler lobby, with key ministerial portfolios handed to its supporters.

After nearly six weeks of tough negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to piece together a predominantly rightwing government pundits say will see will see a "dramatic rise in the power of the settlers."

Although the coalition includes the centrist Yesh Atid (19 seats) and HaTnuah (six seats), both of which want to renew peace talks with the Palestinians, it is dominated by the hawkish Likud-Beitenu (31 seats) and its new national-religious ally Jewish Home (12 seats), a far-right faction that is party of choice for settlers.

"Most of the key positions will be filled by settlers and their supporters," wrote Barak Ravid in the left-leaning Haaretz.

Under the agreement, the defence and housing ministries, both of which play central roles in approving settlement construction, have been handed to rightwing MPs with pro-settlement track records.

Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon, named defence minister on Sunday, is a 62-year-old former military chief of staff from Netanyahu's Likud known for his support of the settlers and opposition to any freeze on construction beyond the Green Line.

His deputy, Danny Dannon, also from Likud, is cut from the same cloth.

And the housing ministry has been handed to Uri Ariel, an ultra-nationalist settler who is number two in Jewish Home, which completely opposes a Palestinian state.

Settler leaders could hardly conceal their glee at the two appointments.

"Be successful in your important roles, we support you and we trust you!" Gershon Mesika, a settler leader from the northern West Bank, wrote on Facebook.

"On the face of it, it does look like a wet dream. Yaalon on defence and Ariel on housing is something which carries great potential," he said in remarks carried by Ynet news website.

UN special envoy for the Middle East peace process Robert Serry recently told the OneVoice movement that if Ariel's appointment to housing meant a wave of settlement building, it would destroy chances of reaching peace between the two peoples, his remarks communicated by the NGO's spokesman.

Israel's Peace Now has also raised concern over the key ministries being handed to MPs with a pro-settler agenda.

"The housing minister has a big role in the construction of settlements and giving budgets for settlement construction" in both annexed east Jerusalem and the West Bank, said the anti-settlement NGO's Hagit Ofran.

"I think Uri Ariel is going to be much, much worse (than his ultra-Orthodox predecessor) because his direct constituents are the settlers," she told AFP.

Jewish Home will also receive the powerful parliamentary finance committee which plays a key role in funding settlements.

As defence minister, Yaalon was also likely to push for increased Israeli construction across the lines which existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.

"Yaalon is very much pro-settler," Ofran said of the man who in 2009 referred to Peace Now as a "virus" that has caused huge damage to the settler cause.

Every step in settlement issues must be approved by the minister, she said.

"I believe he is going to be even more open to letting them push ahead with construction and making outposts legal after they've been built," she warned.

In recent years, Yaalon chastised his predecessor Ehud Barak for footdragging over approving new construction and blocking moves to legalise unauthorised outposts, Haaretz said, suggesting he would "change the policy."

The international community views all Israeli construction on land seized during the 1967 war a violation of international law, and the Palestinians have refused to return to peace talks while Israel builds on land they want for a future state.

Netanyahu was very aware of the diplomatic problems which could arise from a surge in settlement activity, Ravid wrote.

"His close advisers have warned him of the damage the settlements are causing Israel and support freezing them, even if only partially," he said.

"If he does not show leadership and responsibility, the settlement government that was forced on Netanyahu will become the government of isolation."