Settler leaders up pressure on PM to immediately annex

Ariel mayor quits settlement umbrella group over its opposition to Trump plan

Fellow Yesha Council members lament move, but say official position on matter hasn’t been finalized and that organization only opposes part of plan pertaining to Palestinian state

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Ariel Mayor Eli Sheviro (L) stands next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the site of a terror attack at Ariel Junction in the northern West Bank, March 18, 2019. (Jack Guez / POOL / AFP)
Ariel Mayor Eli Sheviro (L) stands next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the site of a terror attack at Ariel Junction in the northern West Bank, March 18, 2019. (Jack Guez / POOL / AFP)

The mayor of the northern West Bank Israeli city of Ariel announced on Monday that he was rescinding his membership in the Yesha Council over the umbrella organization of settler mayors’ opposition to the Trump peace plan.

Eli Shaviro released a statement saying the Yesha Council was coming out in strong opposition to the proposal “which will bring fantastic news for the settlement movement,” only because it also envisions the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The mayor of Ariel, where some 20,000 Israelis live, claimed the position was drafted without his input and also ignored several other settlement mayors who make up the Yesha Council.

“As a supporter of the Deal of the Century due [to its support of recognition of Israeli] sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the communities of Judea and Samaria, I feel that the council does not represent the views of many [West Bank mayors], my city and myself. Therefore I am announcing my resignation from the Yesha Council,”  Shaviro said.

Settler leaders at the US Embassy’s Independence Day celebration in Tel Aviv on July 3, 2017. (From L-R) Ariel Mayor Eliyahu Shaviro, Efrat Mayor Oded Ravivi, Yesha Director General Shiloh Adler, and Ma’ale Adumim Mayor Benny Kasriel. (Courtesy: Yesha Council)

The Monday declaration represented the climax of a growing rift between the secular mayor of a city settlement where many residents live simply due to the more affordable housing costs, and the rest of the body of more hardline, ideological West Bank mayors.

Shaviro spoke out against the Yesha Council last week after it issued a statement blasting the plan on the night before it was unveiled following rumors that it would call for establishing a Palestinian state — a red line for most settler leaders who believe that no other state should be granted sovereignty over parts of the ancient Land of Israel.

The statement suggested that the umbrella group was prepared to temporarily forgo enacting sovereignty, rather than accept an American plan that coupled green-lighting West Bank annexation with establishing a Palestinian state.

The Ariel mayor told The Times of Israel then that he could live with a demilitarized Palestinian state on 70% of the West Bank, given the formal recognition that the plan offered to the settlement movement.

Settler leaders meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, at the Blair House in Washington on January 27, 2020. (Courtesy)

Moreover, he asserted that the Palestinian Authority would reject the proposal as it has indeed went on to do.

A settler leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Times of Israel that the initial Yesha statement in opposition to the plan had been independently sent out of spite by the council’s leader, Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhayani, who was livid over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to take a meeting with Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan in Washington.

Dagan had flown to DC on his own last week to monitor Netanyahu’s talks with US officials ahead of the Trump plan’s unveiling, and also to meet with Republican and Evangelical officials in order to lobby against the Palestinian state envisioned by the plan. Elhayani was also in Washington with several other Yesha member for the same reasons, but Dagan has long preferred to work independently, earning the frustration of his West Bank mayoral colleagues.

In an apparent recognition that it had overstepped in its initial statement, coming out wholly against the Trump plan when their ally, Netanyahu was supporting it and before its members had met to debate the matter, the Yesha Council said after the US proposal was released that it would study the plan and come out with a decision at a later date.

Yesha members met on Saturday night and were briefed by those who met with US and Israeli officials while in DC for the unveiling. The group then issued a statement saying it would continue supporting immediate annexation of all settlements as well as the Jordan Valley while strongly opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state.

(From L-R) Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani in front of a Gush Etzion lookout point in the West Bank on November 19, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

“At the conclusion of the meeting, it was decided to continue discussions on the matter in the coming days, and to follow the developments closely,” the group said, avoiding stating specific opposition to the Trump plan as it had last week, while simultaneously rejecting one of its most central elements.

Several Yesha members released statements of their own Monday expressing regret over Shaviro’s decision to resign.

Among them was Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman who pointed out that Shaviro had been unable to attend Saturday’s meeting, but that discussion on the issue wasn’t over.

“The opposition to a Palestinian state is an ideological principle and I am somewhat surprised that that position surprises anyone,” Ne’eman said.

“This is a turbulent period, and the reality of it leads to discussions which definitely reach the most sensitive nerves on the body of our nation. This is the time for discourse not for resignations,” he added, saying he hoped Shaviro would rethink his decision.

Shaviro told The Times of Israel last week that he wasn’t the only mayor to support the plan and that there were several others, mainly representing municipalities closer to the Green Line who were also quietly in favor of it.

(From R-L) Former Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar and Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan at a protest tent outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem on October 29, 2017. (Miri Tzachi)

Separately Monday, hundreds of settlers took part in a “sovereignty convoy” of tractors along Route 90 in the Jordan Valley, calling on the government to immediately annex the area along with all other Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Netanyahu announced after the Trump plan unveiling that he would bring an annexation proposal before the cabinet this past Sunday. But after initial support for the measure by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner put the breaks on the move, saying he wanted to create a joint US-Israel committee that would coordinate the measure. He told the Egyptian El-Hekaya news show Sunday that the process would likely take a couple months.

Netanyahu has since ceased talk of immediate annexation, sparking the ire of hardline right-wingers as well as settler leaders. However, he is reported to be trying to convince the White House to allow a small scale and symbolic annexation before the March election.

Dagan vowed on Monday to up the pressure against the premier if he does not keep his initial word on the matter. In the past, he has held protest tents outside the Prime Minister’s Office, demonstrating against what he has deemed to be policies against the settler movement. With significant clout in the Likud party, the Samaria Regional Council chairman has managed to rally senior members of Netanyahu’s party around him at those protests.

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