David Elhayani entered the Israeli consciousness earlier this month after strongly criticizing U.S. President Donald Trump. The Jordan Valley farmer grows spices for a living – “I had it quite good on the farm,” he says as we get into his Cadillac – and was elected head of the Yesha Council of settlements last November. In the past six months, he has become the most prominent figure in the right-wing campaign against Trump’s Mideast peace plan (the so-called deal of the century).
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“My wife is very unhappy and worried about it, as are my children,” he says as we travel to meet his Arab foreman in the nearby village of az-Zubaidat, so that I can see with my own eyes the warm relations he enjoys with the foreman and his family (thus indicating that he’s not a racist colonialist). He also wants me to meet flesh-and-blood Arabs who favor annexation and obtaining an Israeli identity card, thereby demonstrating that his annexation vision is not just some fantasy ignoring the Palestinians who live there.
He’s in the midst of a media blitz and is meeting ministers on a daily basis. Even though he claims that he and his family don’t like all the commotion, this interview shows he has no hesitation when it comes to shooting from the hip. Elhayani agrees that as things currently stand, annexation seems a distant prospect.
"I told him: ‘Honorable prime minister, a state is a state. It doesn’t have an army now. If anything, I’d prefer it to have an army. The Israel Defense Forces knows how to handle armies; it’s terror it doesn’t know how to contend with."
He says the falling out between himself and the prime minister happened during their trip to Washington in January, when Trump’s plan was first unveiled.
“We landed on a Sunday and I couldn’t sleep that night. Something in Netanyahu’s words bothered me,” Elhayani recalls. “This was after a meeting we had with a senior official in the U.S. administration, who started talking about a construction freeze for at least four years. The prime minister also mentioned something in that vein. I asked him: ‘What four years?’ The groom is here and the bride – namely, the Palestinians – are refusing to join. I then realized that what we had was a partition plan.”
The settler leader claims Netanyahu “tried to pull one over us. He said, ‘Guys, it’s not a [Palestinian] state, it’s less than that. It’s a state without an army.’ I told him: ‘Honorable prime minister, a state is a state. It doesn’t have an army now. If anything, I’d prefer it to have an army. The Israel Defense Forces knows how to handle armies; it’s terror it doesn’t know how to contend with. Look at Gaza.”
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Elhayani says Netanyahu presented an annexation map of the Jordan Valley to the settlers last September. “It bore no correlation to Trump’s plan. Netanyahu already knew Trump’s outline – he was trying to bamboozle us.”
That was quite the transition, from euphoria to depression. You went to Washington to celebrate, and that very night you realized you were caught in, from your perspective, a nightmare.
“Yes, I realized I was in a situation in which I ... in which he was going to establish a Palestinian state.”
You still supported him against Gideon Sa’ar in last December’s Likud primary, right?
“I’ll always support a Likud prime minister. I told Gideon that. When there’s an incumbent prime minister, I won’t replace him.”
According to you, that man cheated you.
“He didn’t cheat. He deceived us, since he was familiar with that [Trump] plan. He led us on.”
And then you launched a full-frontal assault against him. How does that feel as a Likudnik?
“It’s not a simple matter, far from it. There are huge forces being exerted.”
Did you receive threats or feel any pressure?
“Of course. Behind my back, they tried to oust me from the Yesha Council. I don’t know if [Netanyahu] knew about it, but his close associates did.”
‘The Americans halted annexation’
After daring to assault the holy of holies after claiming earlier this month that Trump is “no friend of Israel,” Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin strongly attacked Elhayani. “It wasn’t the wisest step to take,” a senior Likud member tells Haaretz. “Trump is not only a friend of Israel but a friend of the settlements. Elhayani is working against his own interests.”
Responding to the criticism, Elhayani says: “There were people who said I was the one who blocked [Israeli] sovereignty [in the West Bank]. They attribute too much to me. It was the Americans who halted annexation by telling us to stop [annexation plans] within 48 hours. There stood an American president, repeatedly mentioning a Palestinian state, and then came Netanyahu, not mentioning such a state at all. And then the whole thing collapsed. How come? Because the Americans realized these Israelis were deceiving them. They want the sovereignty part, but the prime minister says nothing about a Palestinian state? In the Bar-Ilan speech [in 2009], Netanyahu talked about two states for two peoples. But here, in front of the friendliest president [to Israel], he doesn’t mention a Palestinian state?
“The prime minister says we will hold negotiations over the plan’s outline. How can you do that? I told him that I preferred listening to the Americans.” At this point, Elhayani starts looking for a video that shows U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman talking about a Palestinian state. “And this is the most right-wing person among them, saying that Israel has determined the borders of the Palestinian state.”
"If you met President Trump tomorrow morning and asked him about the details of this plan, do you think he’d know? Obviously not.”
Trump is very popular with everyone on the Israeli right. Weren’t you mistaken to confront him so openly?
“I had it all planned. From the beginning, I marked the Americans as a target. I said that [Trump’s special adviser and son-in-law Jared] Kushner had stabbed Netanyahu in the back after the event in Washington, and I later said that Friedman was being deceptive in selling only the sovereignty part without revealing to Israelis that ultimately there’s also a Palestinian state. This was a scam, and it was time to go to Trump – who isn’t familiar with the plan – and tell him: ‘Sir, you’re endangering the security of the State of Israel.’”
Are the Americans actually serving the interests of the Palestinians?
“The Palestinian public is of no interest to them. I’ll tell you what interests them: they want to chalk up some achievement. Kushner wants to bring his father-in-law Trump the achievement of being the greatest leader in the world. No leader since 1948 has managed to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and here, the great Trump arrived and did it! He’ll say, ‘I told you. I’m a businessman and I know how to close deals. This is the deal I closed: Have sovereignty and give a Palestinian state.’ If you met President Trump tomorrow morning and asked him about the details of this plan, do you think he’d know?”
I assume he wouldn’t.
“Obviously not. He looks at political gains, thinking that perhaps he’ll get the Nobel Peace Prize or that it might work to his benefit in the election.”
All or nothing
Elhayani and his rivals at the Yesha Council – for whom Israeli lawmakers and ministers immediately clear their schedules (“By the way, it’s amazing how little they know about these issues,” Elhayani says) – represent the reality that the debate about annexation in Israel is being held mainly on the right. “In Washington, I realized that our story was over,” says one council head about that January unveiling. “As long as Barack Obama was president, we were united. If there’s annexation, we won’t be needed any longer. If there isn’t, we’ll continue to fight.”
“As long as Barack Obama was president, we were united. If there’s annexation, we won’t be needed any longer. If there isn’t, we’ll continue to fight.”
As a result, Elhayani, whose DNA is so different to the other senior Yesha Council members – most of whom are religious-Zionist types (and often Ashkenazi) – has become the most strident ideological voice against both the “deal of the century” and Netanyahu. He has joined his erstwhile opponents within the Yesha Council. He recounts how when he returned from Washington, he said, “If this how things are going to be, I don’t want sovereignty. We’ll continue to live as we are and everything will be fine.”
For you, it’s all or nothing. Why don’t you listen to some of your colleagues who say this is the best plan ever offered to the settlers – including the dramatic step of annexation, which is like a dream come true?
“When I see what’s happening in Gaza – that 395 square kilometers [152 square miles] holds the country by the balls, squeezing when it feels like it, letting go when it suits – I don’t want that multiplied tenfold in the heart of the country.
“In terms of convenience, what’s wrong with the current situation? I’m the main beneficiary of this [Trump] plan. I could tell myself to sit back and let them conduct their own wars with me protecting the Jordan Valley. But I have a responsibility here; it’s my national responsibility. I’m now in a position where they listen to me more. If I was just any old farmer, no one would talk to me. Since I’m the head of a regional council and head of the Yesha Council, they say: ‘Let’s listen to his position.’ And my position is – no thanks!”
Perhaps because this is an interview with Haaretz, it’s very important for Elhayani to emphasize his respect for the Palestinian residents of the Jordan Valley and also Israel’s Arab citizens. He talks about the need to improve attitudes toward them, criticizing Israel at length for neglecting them.
You also said, in contrast to the prime minister, that you want to give Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians in the Jordan Valley.
"Ask any Palestinian here what he wants. He’ll tell you he wants an Israeli identity card.”
“Certainly. You can’t take people and not be responsible for them. I’m talking about 6,400 people in Area C [the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control]. After all, we can’t have Areas A and B – even though [the Palestinians] want it. They’re dying for it. Ask any Palestinian here what he wants. He’ll tell you he wants an Israeli identity card.”
I tease him, saying that his suggestion would be a boon for the predominantly Arab Joint List party, which he blames for perpetuating the discrimination against Israeli Arabs, bringing it hundreds of thousands of new voters.
“The number of Palestinians in Area C is not the issue. Our numbers show that in all remaining parts of Area C, there are about 30,000 Palestinians. Even if there are 150,000, I’m not sure this will change the political map of the State of Israel. Is 20 percent of the population OK, but 40 percent isn’t? So they’ll get two more Knesset seats – so what? If the state has a problem with the issue of voting in the Knesset [election], they’ll come up with a solution.”
What kind of solution could you have? Either the Palestinians vote or they don’t.
“They could have autonomy. They could be residents and not citizens, like the East Jerusalem model.”
Does it seem reasonable to you that in the same territory you’ll have one person voting for a parliament and the other person won’t – just because of ethnic affiliation? That’s apartheid.
“It’s not apartheid. If lack of equality is apartheid, I feel I already have apartheid – because an Arab citizen can go to university at age 18 and I don’t have that option; I’m obliged to serve in the army. I have many Israeli Arab friends who don’t believe the Joint List’s bullshit about lack of equality. What is inequality? I want their equality. I want to be an Arab, living where I want to, on whichever plot of land I want to. I don’t want to pay taxes or electricity bills and link up to the grid here cheaply, not serving in the army.”
Do you feel like an outsider on the Yesha Council? As a Mizrahi, secular Jew?
“I suppose that if I were secular with leftist leanings, this might have found some expression – but with my positions, I’m holier than the pope for them. My Mizrahi origins are unimportant. I was interviewed on the Walla news site last week and looked at the comments section later. I was surprised how many people were talking about my Mizrahi roots. We have a lot of ills in Israeli society. And we’re still talking about the Palestinians.”