Days after the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made strenuous efforts to distance himself from his deputy defense minister, who had ridiculed the notion that this government would back a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s coalition chief whip on Tuesday took over as a co-chair of a Knesset caucus dedicated to fortifying Israel’s presence in all parts of the West Bank.
Likud MK Yariv Levin, whose role as coalition chairman is to ensure that MKs from the various factions of the coalition vote to implement government policy, became the new co-chair of the Caucus for Eretz Israel. His fellow chair is Jewish Home MK Orit Strock, who lives in Hebron.
“The Caucus for Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel] needs to be the compass of the government and the Knesset,” Levin wrote Monday on Facebook. “We will act to strengthen our hold on all parts of Eretz Israel, and will safeguard the settlement enterprise out of faith and the knowledge that exercising our rights to this land is our duty but also the best guarantee for Israel’s security.” Levin is on record as supporting Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
Knesset caucuses have no legislative power, but Levin’s appointment to the post underlines the widespread and open opposition to Palestinian statehood in the coalition, in general, and in Netanyahu’s own governing Likud party, in particular.
Knesset caucuses, sometimes called lobbies, are informal groups of parliamentarians that gather around a certain cause or topic. There are hundreds of such caucuses, but the one Levin and Strock now head is one of the largest — if not the largest, with 20-30 members in the last Knesset — and most active. Its members include lawmakers from the far-right to the political center. Dov Lipman and Pnina Tamanu Shata, two legislators from the Yesh Atid party, which endorses a two-state solution, participated in Tuesday’s relaunch ceremony of the caucus in the Knesset. Also there were Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) and ministers Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) and Uzi Landau (Yisrael Beytenu).
In the previous Knesset, the Caucus for Eretz Israel was also co-chaired by then-coalition chairman, Ze’ev Elkin, another Likud MK, who was promoted after January’s elections to deputy foreign minister. It was one of the few caucuses that had paid employees and volunteers working toward the advancement of its goals, taking lawmakers and ministers on chartered bus tours and publishing printed material in support of its cause.
The lobby’s declared goal is “strengthening the state of Israel’s hold over the all parts of Eretz Israel, especially Judea and Samaria [the Biblical name for the West Bank] and the Jordan Valley,” according to the Knesset website. Further goals include:
- prevention of any harm done to settlements
- promoting legislation to strengthen the settlements
- promoting national consciousness and public relations regarding Zionist values, “both in Israel and vis-à-vis other countries regarding Israel’s right” to the West Bank and the Jordan Valley
- directing state resources in order to strengthen the security of settlements
- redesigning Israel’s defense policy to advancement settlements.
Though this is not explicitly stated in its goals, most if not all caucus members reject Palestinian statehood and favor annexing the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Levin is a staunch opponent of a two-state solution, and advocates a slow but steady de facto annexation of the West Bank, mainly by expanding existing settlements and taking whatever steps are possible to apply Israeli laws to Jewish communities beyond the Green Line.
“In this way, we will try, slowly but surely, to expand the circle of settlements, and to afterwards extend the roads that lead to them, and so forth. At the end of this process, the facts on the ground will be that whatever remains [of the West Bank] will be merely marginal appendages,” he said at a conference in January dedicated to a possible Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
Speaking to The Times of Israel on the sideline of that conference, in Jerusalem, Levin implied that Netanyahu does not truly believe in Palestinian independence. This despite the prime minister’s much-touted Bar-Ilan University speech, in which he agreed in principle to the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.
“Even when the prime minister spoke about the issue of two states, he didn’t speak about a state in the full sense. He spoke about a long range of conditions that he himself says there is no chance that they will be fulfilled in the near future due to the actions of the other side,” Levin said.
In the last Knesset, Levin was among a group of Likud MKs who tried to advance legislation that would have applied Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank. Netanyahu intervened and no such bill was approved.
While he acknowledged that there are some strategic differences between Likud MKs over how to deal with the Palestinian issue, Levin told The Times of Israel in January they were “essentially theoretical.”
“We fully agree and are completely united behind the prime minister’s position, which is to strengthen our foothold in the Land of Israel, to build in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria,” he said. “At the end of the day,” Levin continued, “I think the eternal link between the people of Israel to its land is a proven fact; it’s written in the Holy Scriptures. There is no disagreement about that. There aren’t two Jerusalems, and there will be no two Jerusalems. And therefore, I have no doubt that at the end of the process what we saw here [at this conference] is a vision that will come true.”
In an interview last week, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon told The Times of Israel that the current government has no majority in the Knesset to advance any peace deal with the Palestinians that entails the creation of a Palestinians state. “Today we’re not fighting it [Netanyahu’s declared goal of a Palestinian state], but if there will be a move to promote a two-state solution, you will see forces blocking it within the party and the government,” he vowed. Danon’s remarks, which came as US Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to get Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks, were widely criticized by the opposition.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel that Danon’s remarks do not represent the position of Netanyahu and the government. The prime minister “is interested in a resumption of negotiations without preconditions” and his positions regarding support for a two-state solution remain in force, they said.
The PMO on Tuesday refused to comment on Levin taking over the Caucus for Eretz Israel, with officials saying this was a political matter.