Netanyahu Meets Settler Leaders, Pledges $230 Million for West Bank Settlement Development

The plan's main projects include five major highways, among them roads bypassing Palestinian towns ■ Netanyahu gave his consent following the erection of a protest tent by settler leaders

A picture taken on October 25, 2017 shows a general view of construction work in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish settlement in the mainly Palestinian eastern sector of Jerusalem.

Hundreds of millions of shekels will be invested in developing infrastructure throughout the West Bank, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised settler leaders on Wednesday. The leaders with whom Netanyahu spoke say the amount in question is about 800 million shekels (nearly $230 million). Another source says the exact sum remains open, but amounts to hundreds of millions of shekels.

The money for roads and other infrastructure will start to arrive next year, Netanyahu promised settler leaders, according to sources in the know of the conversation.

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At the meeting were Netanyahu, his bureau chief Yoav Horowitz, Yesha council leader Avi Roeh, and Ze'ev Hever (familiarly known as Zambish), head of the Amana movement. Some weeks ago Netanyahu had met with settler leaders in the territories, who demanded that the prime minister stop the "discrimination and allocate budgets for developing infrastructure in the territories."

According to the settlers, Netanyahu "said he had been acting tirelessly in recent weeks to advance the request," and would earmark 800 million shekels for the effort, as of the next fiscal year. Though as said, another source says the exact sum remains unknown.

"It is significant news for all the people living in Judea and Samaria and in the Jordan Valley," Roeh said, adding that the amount would bridge a gap created over years.

The plan that will be moved forward is a new one, and the agreement by the prime minister to advance it, in principle, was reached after local council heads in the territories demanded it of him a few weeks ago. The plan prepared by the settlers was presented to Netanyahu as a political demand in a meeting at his office on the eve of Yom Kippur.

The plan’s main projects include five major highways, but the plan has not yet been formally written and is not ready to move forward. The agreement and promise of funds by the prime minister are only verbal pledges and are, to a large extent, written on ice. However, Netanyahu did express his commitment to the settlers that funding for this plan would start flowing early next year, after a detailed plan with actual budgetary estimates was put in writing.

Netanyahu’s consent was given following the erection of a protest tent two days ago by settler leaders demanding that these plans go forward. The tent was visited by Welfare and Social Services Minister Haim Katz (Likud) and by Economy Minister Eli Cohen (Kulanu). Some of the settlers at the protest tent said that the prime minister’s promise was insufficient in allaying their concerns. “We want to see tractors working there and immediate action – we’ve had it with promises and media announcements” said Avi Ro’eh, the head of the Beit Aryeh local council.

Yigal Lahav, the head of the Karnei Shomron local council, said that “every financial gain is welcome but one can’t ignore the fact that the infrastructure plan agreed on by the Yesha council and Netanyahu deals mainly with bypass roads, not with the expansion of existing roads.” The head of the Shomron council, Yossi Dagan, said that “we’ve had enough of promises and spins – until a decision on budgets doesn’t pass through the regular channels we’ll remain here outside the Prime Minister’s house, together with the bereaved families. The blood of our residents will not be cheapened.”

Which projects exactly would be covered by the money has not been said, though the notice sent to council leaders in the area said, among other things, that the plan included building five roads, including roads bypassing Arab towns, and doubling Route 446 between Modiin Ilit and Shilat. Also, lighting will be installed on West Bank roads.

On Sunday, a Knesset committee will decide whether the coalition will support a bill that would put a number of West Bank settlements under the jurisdiction of the Negev Development Authority law, which provides financial assistance to the towns in the region.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation will review the bill submitted by 21 coalition lawmakers, headed by Habayit Hayehudi’s Betzalel Smotrich, that calls on the government to bring these West Bank communities under the auspices of the authority. The bill’s sponsors noted that until a few years ago, they had been included. In 2011, Haaretz revealed that the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry, which oversees the authority, had funded part of the construction of Kiryat Arba's cultural center – to the tune of 1.5 million shekels (then around $419,000).

“Recently Kiryat Arba and the Hebron Hills Regional Council were excluded from the law because of a legal interpretation of the term ‘Negev’ as referring to ‘state territories’ that lie beneath the 115th parallel,” the sponsors write in the bill’s explanatory notes. “In accordance with this new interpretation, since the territories of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] are not part of the state’s territory, they are not included in the law.”

According to the sponsors, “This interpretation unjustifiably discriminates against the southern communities in Judea and Samaria that are south of the 115th parallel and have the same characteristics as the Negev communities and cope with the same challenges."

The Negev Development Authority operates under a law passed during Yitzhak Shamir’s second government to advance plans for social and economic development in Negev communities. The authority oversees projects funded by the state; it is also permitted to solicit donations both in Israel and abroad and set up foundations for economic development in the south.

The law defines the Negev as being below the 115th parallel north, which runs between Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malakhi; Kiryat Arba is to its south. Israel also uses latitude lines for geographic definitions in other laws.