Settlement leaders in the West Bank don’t expect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet his self-imposed deadline to begin the process toward Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank on Wednesday, but some even go as far as predicting that if the move does not happen in July, it will never take place at all.
“At a meeting [on Monday], we made the assessment that there was an 80-percent [chance] that, ultimately, nothing will happen,” David Elhayani, the chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements told Haaretz.
Settlement leaders even spoke about July 15 as the “expiration” date for the annexation plan. Yisrael Gantz, head of the Mateh Binyamin regional council, which encompasses 46 Israeli settlements and outposts north of Jerusalem, between the Green Line and Jericho, noted the significance of the presidential election campaign leading up to Election Day on November 3. “In the three months prior to the election, the United States will not do anything dramatic,” he posited.
Annexation of all of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as well as a swath of territory in the Jordan Valley, is what President Donald Trump’s plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians calls for, in exchange for Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state in the remaining portions of the West Bank.
The head of the Gush Etzion regional council, south of Jerusalem, Shlomo Ne’eman, was cautious in his comments on the long-term fate of the annexation plan, remarking that “there is a chance that ultimately nothing will happen.” What will be done at this stage is not entirely clear because it depends on the American position, he said. Israel has given the Americans several options “and they haven’t supported or rejected any of them,” he added.
Oded Revivi heads the local council in the settlement of Efrat, between Bethlehem and Hebron, and is one of the few settlement leaders who publicly supports Trump’s plan. He also predicts that nothing will happen on Wednesday. “Ultimately it needs to come up for a vote at a forum of some kind, the Knesset, the cabinet,” he said. There might be a statement issued on the subject on Wednesday but it will not have any official weight, he added.
For Revivi, July is the last month during which the annexation process can be carried out, saying that political attention in the United States will be directed elsewhere afterwards. “The idea was to achieve a situation in which, if annexation were to come before the UN Security Council, the United States would be able cast a veto on it, but if the timetable is too packed, this won’t happen.”
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Several of the settlement leaders who spoke to Haaretz said they were told that Israel was considering either annexing only the areas directly under the jurisdiction of the settlements themselves, or annexing the Jordan Valley. Others suggest that talk about annexation of the Jordan Valley is only a political maneuver designed to serve Israel in negotiations with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, after which Israel could retreat at the last moment, and move ahead with a more limited, and safer, annexation. According to multiple reports in the press, Jordan has until now made it clear that it would oppose even a limited annexation.
A cool reception
West Bank settlers have complained about the cold shoulder the United States has been giving them lately, attributing it to the coronavirus pandemic, the racial unrest in the United States and Trump’s current dismal polling numbers. But they have also noticed something else – less pressure from Trump’s domestic political base than they had hoped for.
“We have been getting messages that the United States is interested in calm, that it doesn’t want another powder keg, and also that there isn’t enough pressure on Trump to apply sovereignty,” Alhayani said, referring to the annexation process.
In recent weeks, settlers have attempted to apply pressure on the president through Christian evangelicals in the United States, including John Hagee, the Protestant minister and television evangelist. Yossi Dagan, who heads the Samaria regional council, was interviewed by the Christian Broadcasting Network in the United States.
He spoke in terms that his television audience would identify with, saying that his was the generation that has had the privilege of fulfilling the prophesies of Jeremiah, Amos and Ezekiel, who prophesied the return of the Jewish people to their land after 2,000 years in exile and the renewed Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, the biblical names of the West Bank, as well as Jerusalem.
Oded Revivi has also had conversations in recent weeks with Christian evangelical leaders.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke via teleconference to the American evangelical organization Christians United for Israel, telling his audience that the Trump plan calls for the settlements of Beit El (or Bethel, as it is also known to Christians) and Shilo (or Shiloh), which are “an integral part of the historic Jewish homeland,” to be annexed. “These places are also an integral part of Christian identity, part of your heritage and of our common civilization,” the prime minister added.
Some settlement leaders do not view the remarks as a firm commitment on Netanyahu’s part, but rather an effort to speak to his evangelical audience on their own terms.
In recent months, West Bank settlement leaders have lobbied members of the Knesset in support of the annexation plan. On Monday, some met with Strategic Affairs Minister and Kahol Lavan lawmaker Orit Farkash-Cohen. “I view a need and the importance of holding a series of discussions as soon as possible in the security cabinet on the implications of the move in its various aspects,” she said later in a lukewarm statement. On the same day, her party leader, Defence Minister (and future prime minister) Benny Gantz said that July 1 was not a “sacred date” when it came to the annexation plans.
At the same time, settlement leaders who oppose the Trump plan launched a campaign on Monday under the slogan “They will not decide,” with pictures of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab Joint List Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, and another one referring to Netanyahu’s campaign promise regarding annexation. The slogan roughly translates, as “You’ve decided – Keep your promise.” The campaign appeared on the front page of Tuesday’s Israel Hayom daily, a free, right—wing daily beholden to Netanyahu.
In another development Monday, 33 prominent members of the settlement movement, including the council heads in Efrat, Ariel, Alfei Menashe and Oranit, released a letter to Netanyahu entitled “Sovereignty – making history” in which they called for him to adopt the Trump plan.
“As we understand it,” a senior official with the Yesha Council said, “the Americans certainly don’t want to go with [annexation of] 30 percent and are trying now to find an alternative with Bibi [Netanyahu] which on one hand will advance settlement and on the other hand gives something to the Palestinians.”
The settlement heads’ main concern is that of an Israeli commitment of some kind to freeze settlement construction. Over time, following the announcement of plans for annexation, members of the Yesha Council who oppose the Trump plan have expressed satisfaction over their decision to come out against it. They claim that it has become apparent that the Americans don’t intend to permit annexation without Israel giving something in return.