Disaster or Opportunity? As Annexation Looms, Israeli Settlers Torn Over Trump's Plan

'The argument is not between supporters and opponents of sovereignty, but between supporters and opponents of a Palestinian state,' right-wing lawmaker says

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Hagar Shezaf
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Ayelet Shaked with Yesha Council Chairman David Elhayani at the Knesset, May 26, 2020.
Ayelet Shaked with Yesha Council Chairman David Elhayani at the Knesset, May 26, 2020.
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's target date of July 1 approaches and the Israeli government may launch the annexation of parts of the West Bank, rifts and disagreements emerge among Israeli settler leaders regarding U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East plan.

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Leaders of Yesha Council, an umbrella group of settlement councils, have been walking around the Knesset in recent days with a map in their hands, going from one meeting with a right-wing lawmaker to another.

They say that the map, which has already been featured in tweets by Yamina lawmakers Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich, is a copy of the conceptual map presented as part of the “Deal of the Century” regarding the division of the West Bank between Israel and the Palestinians. They carry it as proof of the calamity that will befall the settler enterprise if the Trump plan is adopted.

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu deliver joint remarks on a Middle East proposal in the East Room of the White House, January 28, 2020.Credit: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

"We’re trying to make them realize that accepting the Trump plan will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state," said Yesha Council leader and the head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, David Elhayani.

Last week, the Yesha Council passed a resolution saying that it opposes the recognition or establishment of a Palestinian state, the freezing of construction in the settlements and the leaving of isolated settlements as enclaves, items that are all included in Trump’s plan.

But not all settler leaders agree. Among those abstaining from these lobbying efforts is Oded Ravivi, the head of the Efrat Local Council who has a reputation as the most pragmatic of the settler leaders. “We can’t say no to everything. I think the plan relates first of all to what's possible in the near future – extending sovereignty – and then we can start negotiating and see about the rest.”

Ravivi says he has been told by the American administration that Israel cannot object to a Palestinian state on an a priori basis, even before negotiations have begun. "It's my understanding, at the end of the process, we’ll see a Palestinian state without an army or control over its borders, more or less like the Palestinian Authority now," he said, arguing the opposition to enclaves is demagoguery. "After all, people who live in Karmei Tzur today are already surrounded by Palestinians."

Oded Ravivi, head of the Efrat Regional Council.

Supporting Ravivi are members of regional councils situated closer to the Green Line, such as Ariel Mayor Eliyahu Shaviro and the head of the Alfei Mensahe Council, Shai Rosenzweig. “We don’t believe the Palestinians will accept the minimal conditions for entering into negotiations, and if they agree to everything it’s a win,” Rosenzweig said. "It's a mistake to say no to an offer that may not be repeated."

One Yesha Council leader rankled at members of the council who have broken ranks and supported Trump's plan: "The council has a plenary and everyone is obliged to follow its decisions. It's unacceptable to me that they should be part of the organization and publicly criticize its decisions."

The same council member said that there is a common thread between all those who are in favor of Trump's plan: They live near the Green Line. "They don't have a problem with Palestinians gaining control of transportation routes or enclaves," he said.

"When they’re offered something, they want everything? It’s like arguing against yourself," Ravivi countered.

Yesha Council members conduct a tour of the Jordan Valley for then-Interior Minister Arye Dery, January 27, 2020.Credit: Yaakov Cohen

Yamina's Smotrich joined the debate later that day, responding to an interview Ravivi gave to Army Radio. “The argument is not between supporters and opponents of sovereignty, but between supporters and opponents of a Palestinian state. We, like most of the public in Israel, oppose this vehemently,” he tweeted.

According to Yesha Council leaders, despite promises that the map would be subject to substantial alterations, they've since received the message that any changes would be surface level, at best.

The council had previously prepared a map of their own. “In our optimal map, 38.5 percent of the West Bank would be annexed to Israel. This is most of Area C,” Elhayani eplained. “In our map there is Israeli territorial contiguity and it’s the Palestinians who remain in enclaves.”

Next week, the Yesha Council plans to meet with the Yamina party in hope of attaining a secure commitment to their cause.

Meanwhile, the U.S. administration is worrying them. “In recent weeks we’ve started to hear a different tune from Ambassador [David] Friedman,” said Gush Etzion Regional Council head, Shlomo Ne'eman. “All of a sudden we’re hearing about a freeze on construction in isolated settlements, but what does sovereignty mean? Would anyone tell you what to build in Tel Aviv?"

And yet, settler leaders are careful not to appear as though they totally reject the Trump plan. Instead, they hope to convey that they expect the preconditions to be omitted, and a greenlight for unilateral annexation while the future negotiations remain far off in the murky future.

“When I’m asked if I’ll fight this plan, I say that if I’m asked to yield territory in Judea and Samaria, I’ll fight it tooth and nail. But the plan wasn’t presented as such before. It was shown as something that would enable the application of Israeli sovereignty. In future negotiations we’ll be able to object and prevent any further concessions of territory," Ne'eman said.

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