President Reuven Rivlin called on Thursday for an end to what he called “attempts to silence” the conversation around Israel's plans to annex parts of the West Bank, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu condemned statements by a prominent settler leader criticizing U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan.
“The conversation about critical questions, like annexation, must take place,” Rivlin said in a video uploaded to his Facebook page. “This is the lifeblood of democracy. We must fear those who silence this discourse.” Questions, doubts and criticism from all sides of the political spectrum must be heard, the president said, adding that “verbal abuse, labeling, scorn and disdain must end.”
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He brought up what he called the “attempts at silencing” during the Oslo Accords and Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip, and said that he “remembers how difficult our work was to recover from that same brokenness.” As a Likud lawmaker at the time, Rivlin opposed Israel’s disengagement from its Gaza Strip settlements, an effort led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and worked to hinder it in the Knesset.
In recent weeks, settler leaders have been criticizing aspects of the plan, namely a freeze on settlement expansion and the leaving some 15 isolated settlements inside territories of a future Palestinian state, which they also oppose the establishment of.
David Elhayani, chairman of the Yesha Council umbrella group of settlement councils, drew criticism from Netanyahu after saying that Trump and his senior adviser Jared Kushner "have proven in their plans that they are not friends of the State of Israel" and "do not have Israel's security and settlement interests in mind. All they care about in this outline is promoting their own interests ahead of the upcoming election, [in a way that would] help Trump."
As he "fiercely condemned" Elyahani's comments, Netanyahu praised Trump's Israel policies: "He has led historic processes for the good of the State of Israel, among them recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capitol, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing the legality of the settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria."
Trump's plan, Netanyahu added, "includes recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, Israeli security control of all territory west of the Jordan River, a united Jerusalem, disarming Hamas, preventing [Palestinian] refugees from entering Israel and more. Sadly," he added, "instead of recognizing the good, there are those who deny this friendship."
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Yamina party Chairman Naftali Bennett and former minister Bezalel Smotrich both criticized Alhayani's comments, as did the mayor of Efrat and the head of the Binyamin Regional Council.
Over the past few weeks, American officials have conveyed to settler leaders that their vocal criticism of Trump's plan might lead them to shelf it altogether, dubbing their response ungrateful.