Uri Ariel, the Minister of Agriculture under the current government, is a staunch right-wing politician. He has been a member of the Knesset for 15 years and has always belonged to a right-wing party, occasionally even the extreme right. The common sight today of Uri Ariel emerging from a government-owned luxury car is bizarre not only to others, but to the minister himself. He is accustomed to being part of the opposition, under Sharon, under Olmert, and even under Netanyahu.
Today, Uri Ariel leads the Tekumah faction of the Bayit Yehudi party. Out of the seven Knesset members from Bayit Yehudi, two are members of Tekumah: Minister Uri Ariel and MK Betzalel Smotrich. The two Tekumah representatives were heavily involved in the Amona crisis. They were the ones who pressured Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the Bayit Yehudi party, to threaten Prime Minister Netanyahu, leading to the final agreement that resolved the crisis.
This past motzoei Shabbos, there were feverish discussions that ultimately led to a breakthrough. The residents of Amona rejoiced, even announcing the cancellation of their protests. The agreement averted a repetition of the agonizing scenes of a forced evacuation, a violent struggle, and the demolition of homes in the midst of a clash between soldiers and civilians. That was exactly what took place in Amona ten years ago, also the result of a Supreme Court decision; however, only some of the homes were razed at the time.
I turned to Uri Ariel to solicit a clearer understanding of how the crisis was resolved. Even the citizens of Israel have found it difficult to follow the developments, I pointed out; our readers in America must certainly be confused. He acquiesced to my request and granted me an interview on Monday night, between the votes on the state budget. As we spoke, he appeared thoroughly exhausted.
I imagine that you have been supporting the people of Amona throughout this process.
“I have been supporting them for almost twenty years already. I was at their side during the previous evacuation in Amona ten years ago, when buildings that housed 200 people were demolished. I am happy that we reached a peaceful settlement now, although the episode isn’t over yet. There are still hardships ahead of us, and I believe that the Supreme Court will ultimately get involved again. The court is like a cholent: You know what goes in, but you can never anticipate what will come out. Unfortunately, we still must worry about what the court will do.”
We certainly know that no good can come from there.
“But we daven that they will do teshuvah. In the Shemoneh Esrei, we daven to Hashem to restore the judges of old and to remove our sorrows.”
I see that you are wearing an orange band on your wrist. Does that have to do with Amona?
“No. I have been wearing it since the expulsion from Gush Katif.”
To remember the destruction of those communities?
“I promised myself and others that I will continue wearing it until the people who were expelled are resettled in permanent homes.”
They haven’t all been resettled permanently yet?
“Not in the least. And there are dozens of families who have been beset by financial or personal problems. We try to help them on a case by case basis, but I will continue wearing this orange band until a solution is found for all of them.”
Let’s talk about Amona. I don’t understand what happened, and I think I am not alone in that. The people of Amona have been talking about violent resistance all this time, and now they have suddenly changed their minds. Is the final arrangement really such a great accomplishment? Is it even a minor accomplishment? Is it of any value?
“It is a great accomplishment. I will try to explain it to you in brief. We have always spoken about the community of Amona itself, but this crisis has actually led to an improvement that benefits all the settlements. Until now, there were hundreds of homes, perhaps even thousands, that were in danger of being demolished. That problem has now been resolved. We now have the Regulation Law, which was approved by Attorney General Mandelblit and provides protection for the market.”
What sort of protection?
“The law says that if you innocently take possession of a piece of land that isn’t rightfully yours, and you build on it and add to the value of the land, then the structures you erected will not be demolished, and the owner of the land will be compensated for his loss instead.”
This wasn’t the case until now?
But now it will be the law?
“Yes. It has been finalized, and there are other things that are happening as well because of the situation in Amona. So even if nothing else had come of this, these accomplishments alone would have represented enormous progress. That is in terms of the settlement community in general. As for Amona itself, what we found was a closed Supreme Court decision from two years ago in a case that could not be reopened at all. The date of the evacuation was set for December 24, 2016, in other words, right now. The reason for that decision was that the government informed the court two and a half years ago that it intended to demolish the houses in Amona since they were built on Palestinian land. Instead of announcing that it planned to investigate the plaintiffs’ claims further, or that it would offer them monetary compensation for the land or pursue any other compromises, the government simply decided to destroy the homes. And the Supreme Court said, ‘Good, but when will you do that? Give us a date!’ The Supreme Court added that it wasn’t pressuring the government; the demolition didn’t have to take place immediately, but a date had to be set. The government tried to delay it repeatedly, and then the judges said, ‘Fine, we have heard you; you can have another two years. In two years, you will destroy the community.’ And when the appointed time came, we found ourselves facing an unequivocal ruling of the court.”
And then someone submitted a petition to the court to investigate why the government wasn’t carrying out the demolition?
“Exactly. And the Supreme Court said that the petitioners were correct; the demolition had been scheduled, and it had to be carried out.”
Then you tried to pass the Regulation Law and have it apply to Amona, so that the Palestinian owners would be paid for their land and the homes would not be destroyed.
“We reasoned that the Supreme Court’s rulings are based on the existing laws, but we have the ability to change the laws. After all, we are the legislators of this country. That led to the bills proposed by Smotrich and Shuli Muallem, which became known as the Regulation Law.”
The only reason you aren’t signed on the law as well is because you are a minister, and only a member of the Knesset can pass laws.
“Of course. Five years ago, Ketzaleh [then-MK Yaakov Katz, one of the founders of Arutz Sheva] and I advanced a law of this nature, but it didn’t pass. Now, we always say that the law itself isn’t our goal; if it is possible to resolve problems without passing a new law, then there is no need for a law. That is exactly what has happened. The attorney general has set a precedent by announcing that it is permissible, with certain limitations, to settle on land formerly owned by Arabs that was abandoned by its owners after the Six Day War or for similar reasons. The occupants are allowed to build only temporary structures, and they are granted title to the land for only two years; the title has to be renewed every two years, and the former owners must be reimbursed if they return. That is a new development; it has never been the case before.
But it doesn’t apply to Amona, since there is an existing Supreme Court ruling that calls for the settlement to be demolished. Is that correct?
“Yes. Unfortunately, the buildings in their current locations will have to be razed. But even though the residents’ homes will be demolished, the government will build new homes for them on the same hilltop. That is part of the budget that was discussed in the cabinet meeting yesterday. But make no mistake: This is still difficult for us. It is still a terrible destruction. Nevertheless, the community has a future on the same hill.”
Was it because of Finance Minister Kahlon’s opposition that you didn’t try to pass a law that would apply to Amona as well?
“Correct. Kahlon didn’t agree to the law because it seemed like an attack on the Supreme Court.”
Then it is his fault that the Knesset didn’t pass a law that applies to Amona as well.
“What difference does it make? All that matters is that we found a solution. Instead of passing a new law, we relied on the existing Absentees’ Property Law.”
Would you have preferred the version of the law that contradicted the Supreme Court’s ruling?
“If we were able to have it passed, we would have continued promoting the version of the law that applied retroactively to Amona as well. But there were legal problems and coalition problems with it, and we decided to accept the alternative solution that had been proposed, even if it wasn’t the best solution in the world, since it would leave Amona on the same hilltop with the approval of the attorney general. That itself was an accomplishment.”
But now there will be a law to prevent similar problems?
“Yes. From now on, with the approval of the attorney general, there will be no more home demolitions; instead, the absentee owners of the land will receive compensation. As for Amona, there will be new homes built near its current location, and if any Arabs claim that they own that land as well, then they will be paid for their property.”
Did the people of Amona reject this arrangement at first and then change their minds?
“No. They agreed to it because Mandelblit agreed to extend the existing Absentees’ Property Law to include all the settlements, as well as the new homes that will be built for the residents of Amona.”
I want to understand this: What was it that the residents of Amona refused to accept until yesterday, and what made them change their minds?
“At first, the government spoke about giving them only a single plot of land, which would have accommodated only eleven families. They felt that that was not acceptable. They argued that Amona is a unified community; it isn’t simply a group of families fending for themselves individually. So the government worked on the situation again, and they decided that they could build homes for 26 families on that plot of land; that is a majority of the residents of Amona. There is also another plot of land that was somewhat problematic at first but has now been added to the package, so the solution now accommodates 60 families. As soon as that decision was made, the residents accepted it. The new arrangement allows for the entire community to be resettled on two or three plots of land, and it also provides monetary compensation for the residents, as the government decided yesterday; real compensation, not merely an empty promise to the media. With those two components of the deal, as well as the fact that the community will remain on the same mountaintop, which is actually their main goal, they felt that it is an agreement they can accept. That is what was decided on motzoei Shabbos at 3:00 in the morning.”
So there will be no violent evacuation?
“There will be no violence. The residents of Amona committed to that; it is their pledge.”
Will their new homes be built before the old ones are razed?
“The government is now appealing to the Supreme Court to postpone the demolition for 45 days, due to the new circumstances and for the sake of maintaining the peace. I am not involved in that; the legal experts will write the appeal as they see fit, in the hope that the court will accede to the government’s request and that the new homes will be erected over the course of those 45 days. It is possible to do that; we know how to build quickly when there is a need. The buildings will be temporary structures.”
So a weight has been lifted from your shoulders?
“Not yet. First we have to see that the state will actually do everything it has pledged to do. Sometimes there are gaps between what is promised and what actually takes place. I am not saying this to be critical, since there are good intentions on all sides; nevertheless, we have to monitor the situation and make sure that those intentions are carried out. There are many factors involved. The Ministry of Defense, as well as other government ministries, must take certain actions, but the first thing is for us to see what will happen with the Supreme Court.”
Are you concerned that the court will not grant the 45 day extension, and then the deal will collapse?
“The court might not grant the extra time, but an even worse scenario would be if it doesn’t approve the extension of the Absentees’ Property Law, which will lead us back to the same problem.”
Can you explain that?
“We anticipate that someone will petition the Supreme Court to reject the permission that Mandelblit granted to build on the properties of absentee owners. His approval was conveyed in a legal opinion; he suggested that it is permissible to build on those properties, and if the owners suddenly come to claim their lands, they can be compensated monetarily. We believe that this will become the subject of a Supreme Court case, perhaps even because of a petition filed by a Jew. After all, some of our worst enemies come from within our people. Even if the court doesn’t rule that the attorney general’s position is illegal, the judges can still decide that they will discuss the matter in a few months, and they can order a freeze on the reconstruction of Amona in its new location until they do so. If that happens, what will we do? There are many potential obstacles ahead of us, and the people of Amona are well aware of them. But we explained everything to them very clearly, and we told them that this was their last chance.”
But the bulldozers will be coming to Amona soon, regardless of anything else that may happen.
“That is true. I said that before. There is nothing we can do about it.”
The houses are going to be demolished?
“Yes. We hope that the mikvah will not be destroyed, though. It is the only permanent building there, made of cement and stone.”
If I lived in Amona, I would worry that my house might be destroyed, and at the same time the Supreme Court might torpedo the new construction on the hilltop. Then I would end up homeless!
“No. They will have somewhere to live in any scenario, if not on the same mountaintop, then in the settlement of Ofra. An alternative site for them is being prepared there. Regardless of what happens, they will be taken care of. A budget has been prepared for them to be given temporary housing in Ofra until new homes are built for them, either in Ofra as well or near the present location of Amona. It has all been arranged.”
What are your feelings about this situation?
“I have mixed feelings about it. It is a terrible thing that their homes are being destroyed. These are people who live in Eretz Yisroel, who built their homes in complete innocence, and who must now see those homes being demolished. It’s horrific.”
Yet you are also relieved that there will not be violence?
“First of all, I am relieved because they will be remaining on the same hilltop. And yes, of course, I am also relieved because there will not be violence. Amona will now be remembered as a place that brings people together, not as one that divides them. Even MK Yitzchak Herzog said that he understands that there may be democratic opposition.”
From your perspective, I imagine that the accomplishment for the future is also reason to rejoice.
“True. This goes beyond Amona. But I was referring to my mixed feelings about Amona itself.”
Where do you live?
“In Kfar Adumim. Don’t you read the newspapers? Hamevasser printed a major interview with me.”
Is it close to Amona?
“It is half an hour away by car.”
And there are no problems of this sort in your area? Are there no Arabs who are claiming ownership of the land?
“Kfar Adumim is built on state land. There are no disputes over the land, and no one is challenging its ownership. It is in the desert, near Yericho.”
Most importantly, I see that you still have the strength to fight.
“Boruch Hashem. May Hashem continue giving me strength.”