There Is Only One Thing About Trump’s Peace Plan That Really Satisfies Jewish Settlers

Many are willing to embrace the offer, and count on Palestinian rejection to foil the founding of a Palestinian state. The consensus: There's a welcome change in U.S. policy

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Tapuah junction, West Bank, January 30, 2019.
Tapuah junction, West Bank, January 30, 2019. Credit: David Bachar
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

Hodaya Brand, 30, watched U.S. President Donald Trump’s unveiling of his peace plan at her parents’ home in the settlement of Kedumim.

“We were amazed by what he said. He sounded like Daniella Weiss,” Brand says with a smile, referring to a veteran settler leader. “The family WhatsApp group was rejoicing, of course.”

And yet the day after the presentation of the "deal of the century” was rather run of the mill. Settlers didn't exactly dance the hora in the streets, and many were skeptical that the plan would ever be implemented. There was an increased presence of Israeli army forces at the Tapuah junction, where a sign reading “I love Shomron” (I love Samaria) was recently erected, an invitation to take a selfie in one of the West Bank's most tense locations.

At one of the hitchhiking posts at that intersection, a teen hastily summed up his view of the Trump plan: “If they give us sovereignty we’ll take it, but we hope the Palestinians reject the plan so that a Palestinian state will not be established here.”

The flurry of rumors and media statements by settler leaders has given way to calm after the plan's release. In the hours before the plan was published, the Yesha Council, a settlements umbrella organization, said it will reject the plan because it would mention the establishment of a Palestinain state. Afterwards, they issued a much softer statement, expressing their esteem for the Trump administration and Netanyahu’s efforts.

Settler leaders welcomed the intent to annex settlements, but didn’t support the actual plan and rejected the requisite price – the founding of Palestine – that would be paid.

Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Council, said the establishment of a Palestinian state – which he called a “terrorist state” – or freezing construction in the settlements would be unacceptable to him. Shlomo Ne’eman, head of the Gush Etzion Council, said that “the State of Israel won’t be required to give anything in return,” citing the work that had to be done to apply Israeli law to the settlements: Such as establishing new administrative systems, adapting laws and expanding the borders of settlements that would be left as enclaves. Efrat council head Oded Ravivi celebrated the announcement and declared that “if they had told me 20 years ago that this is what the settlement project would accomplish and that we would win American recognition, the idea would have been ridiculed and we would have been mocked as fools.”

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, look over at Mike Pompeo at the Mideast peace plan unveiling ceremony at the White House, January 28, 2020. Credit: Alyssa Schukar / NYT

There is a consensus that Trump's plan is proof that the American administration has changed its position about the settlements.

Brand said the promises held by the Trump plan are good for Israel, but that she would find it hard to see the Palestinians accepting it. She didn’t reject Palestinian statehood, as she understands that “there is another side and we will also have to give something up.”

For now, Brand hopes that the next step, even if unilateral, will be settlements annexation. She says she intends to vote in the March election for the right-wing alliance Yamina, but if its members reject the plan out of hand, she will consider voting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud.

As opposed to Brand, there are many settlers who unequivocally reject the founding of a Palestinian state.

Assaf Fried in Jerusalem, January 30, 2020.

Assaf Fried, 44, from Negohot in the south Hebron hills, objects to Palestinian statehood and rejects the plan. But he does agree that the plan shows there’s a welcome change in attitude.

“We are used to living in a mad reality in which I have to apologize for my existence, as though people’s lives are bargaining chips for negotiations – so thank God that Trump has taken that off the table forever,” Fried said. He said that the greatness of the plan is that it recognizes that there are both Jews and Arabs living in the West Bank and doesn’t try to change that.

Negohot is one of the settlements that the plan calls for leaving as an enclave, an idea that Yohai Dimri, the head of the Mount Hebron Council, calls “foolishness.”

Negohot in the south Hebron hills , West Bank, July 2020.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Fried isn’t bothered by the proposal since Negohot is in an area that has very few residents, and he doesn’t expect to be surrounded by Palestinian communities. Even his greatest fear, that roads leading to the settlement would pass through areas controlled by Palestinians rather than Israelis, turned out to be false under the Trump plan. That’s why he believes the word enclave is used in the political sense, and doesn't reflect the reality on the ground.

“The bottom line is that sovereignty and Palestinian statehood are a bluff – Israeli law is essentially already applied in Judea and Samaria. If I have a problem, I go to the Israeli police. For construction permits, I apply to the [settlement] council. That’s why this doesn’t really excite me,” Fried said. “I don’t like the plan but to say we should go to war over it? It reflects the situation that is already on the ground, and I think the Palestinians understand that too.”

In a cafe in the Ariel settlement’s commercial center, the existing reality is clear: If it weren’t for the red sign at the entrance warning not to turn toward the neighboring Palestinian village of Kifl Harith, it would be easy to think that you are in Israel.

Rabbi Aviya Hacohen, who teaches in yeshiva, and his wife Dr. Elisheva Hacohen, a literature lecturer in the settlement’s university, both voice a mixture of hope and skepticism.

“[Trump] can say whatever he wants, but it can't be forced on Palestinians,” Rabbi Hacohen said. “What’s important is to begin the peace process and move forward.”

Along with their support for starting negotiations, the Hacohens say they fear the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Guy Ehrlich at Kibbutz Almog, in 2014.Credit: Emil Salman

“We supported Oslo, but to a certain extent we grew wiser politically after the disengagement [from Gaza]. They said that Gaza would be demilitarized, and now we have rockets being fired at Sderot,” Elisheva Hacohen said.

In the calmest part of the West Bank, north of the Dead Sea, Guy Ehrlich, 49, said he’s fearful about what may follow. “There are islands of coexistence in our region, everything is calm and peaceful and I think everyone is worried the calm will be disrupted,” said Ehrlich, a farmer of therapeutic herbs at Kibbutz Almog.

But the plan is an opportunity to get a stuck peace process moving again, Ehrlich added. “One of the sad things of the past decade is that peace became a slur,” he said. “I’m an optimist and it sounds to me like a starting point, and certainly a good one from an Israeli point of view. But in the end, it takes two hands to clap.”

Ehrlich said he’s ready to give up certain things and that in the end, he believes that there will be a Palestinian state. “But if it were my job, I also wouldn’t spell out how much I’m ready to give up at the outset of negotiations.”

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