In a misguided attempt to identify with their plight, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told a group of residents from the doomed Amona West Bank outpost that he knew what it was like to lose a home after he was forced to stay at a Jerusalem hotel following an election loss in 1999.
“I understand what it means to lose one’s home,” Netanyahu said according to a Wednesday report in tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth. “After the elections in 1999, with no warning, they simply threw me and my family out of the house on Balfour. Just like that, with all our belongings, we were thrown onto the street. We had to go to the Sheraton Plaza. It is a terrible feeling.”
The statement was made as Netanyahu and other officials met with Amona’s leadership Saturday night. The meeting was a last-ditch effort to come to a compromise whereby the settlers would agree to move peacefully to a nearby plot of land ahead of a court-ordered deadline for the evacuation of the outpost, which was built on private Palestinian land.
Residents, and thousands of their supporters, had vowed to resist the eviction; they later agreed to accept the government compromise.
The Yedioth report did not detail where the information on Netanyahu’s attempt at commiseration came from. Netanyahu’s office refused to confirm or deny it was said, and a settlement leader present at the meeting said the account was taken out of context.
The settlement leadership also denied Netanyahu had meant harm.
However, according to Yedioth, after Netanyahu made his comparison, incredulous Amona residents at the meeting pointed out that their circumstances are “a little different.”
Undeterred, Netanyahu continued to muse that “it is difficult, very difficult,” the report said.
In 1999, Netanyahu lost a prime ministerial contest to Labor leader Ehud Barak.
Netanyahu claimed he was told to leave the official residence, located on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, at short notice.
The Sheraton Plaza, a luxury hotel now known as the Leonardo Plaza, is less than 200 meters from Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street. At the time Netanyahu also owned an apartment on Azza Street, about 500 meters from the official residence.
Asked by The Times of Israel to confirm that Netanyahu made the reported statements, the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.
In a statement Wednesday morning, the settlement leadership said Netanyahu had not meant any harm.
“Contrary to reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed no disrespect or insensitivity toward our pain, on the contrary, the prime minister showed real empathy and a sincere desire to try his best to relieve the pain and sorrow of destroying our homes,” the statement read. “The published comments are far from reality, and are a distortion of fragments of things that does not reflect the spirit of the meeting and conversation.”
Netanyahu later tweeted a screenshot of the response, urging people to read it.
Israel Radio quoted another person present at the meeting, also unnamed, who confirmed Netanyahu said something like what was quoted in Yedioth.
But Avi Naim, the mayor of the Beit Aryeh settlement, who was also at the meeting, called the quote “evil gossip,” and said the quote was taken out of context and was uttered on the side and not related to Amona.
“He didn’t compare himself to the settlers,” Naim told the radio station.
Opposition lawmakers responded to the report by ridiculing Netanyahu.
“A statement like this shows how deeply disconnected Netanyahu is,” MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) wrote on Facebook.
“This is why we need a two-term limit,” party colleague Merav Michaeli wrote.
Zehava Galon, head of the dovish left-wing Meretz party, lampooned the prime minister, writing on her Twitter account that “Once, I too was forced to go to the Sheraton Plaza. It was a terrible feeling. The bed squeaks, the salad bar was dry and pretentious and you had to pay for the bread rolls.”
“The man has lost his sense of reality,” she continued. “He doesn’t know how people are living here.”
MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) recalled her own flight from a spacious Moscow apartment to a hallway in an Israeli absorption center and parodied Netanyahu’s supposed hardships.
“I imagine you walking briskly across the massive suite, enveloped in sadness and grief but full of determination, Sara lying on a four-poster queen-size bed mourning the home you lost, the kids forced to share a room, with just one TV and Nintendo between the two of them. A horrible, disturbing experience, a real tragedy,” she wrote.
In 2015, the prime minister and his wife Sara Netanyahu, often accused of leading ritzy, high-priced lifestyles, often on the taxpayer’s dime, were mocked for a TV special that aimed to show how humble the Prime Minister’s Residence was, displaying peeling paint and threadbare rugs.
Amona is the largest of about 100 unauthorized outposts — erected without permission but generally tolerated by the government — that dot the West Bank. In December 2014, after multiple appeals and delays, the court accepted the claim that the settlement was built on privately owned Palestinian land and ordered the outpost be evacuated within two years, or no later than December 25 of this year.
The state asked the court for a 45-day delay of the evacuation, which currently has to be carried out by Saturday, in order to prepare temporary housing solutions for the families slated to be evicted, according to a statement from the State Attorney’s office.
If the request is accepted by the court, the new final date for the evacuation would be February 8, 2017.
Authorities are hoping the deal can avoid a repeat of the violence that followed the destruction of several permanent buildings in the outpost in 2006.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.