As Netanyahu fights for annexation, settlers with most to gain remain apathetic
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Inside Story'Is the plan good? We don't know. Am I worried? Not at all'

As Netanyahu fights for annexation, settlers with most to gain remain apathetic

While West Bank mayors remain divided over Trump plan, they’re all in agreement that interest among their residents is low. Some cite a lack of understanding of move’s implications

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses with children during a tree planting event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Mevo'ot Yericho on February 10, 2020. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses with children during a tree planting event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Mevo'ot Yericho on February 10, 2020. (Flash90)

MODIIN ILLIT, West Bank — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s July 1 target date to begin annexing large swaths of the West Bank is just around the corner, but residents of Israel’s most populous settlement don’t appear to be particularly preoccupied with the looming momentous occasion.

During a visit last week to the ultra-Orthodox town of Modiin Illit aka Kiryat Sefer, located just east of the Green Line and west of Ramallah, few locals were interested in discussing the issue, and some did not even seem to know anything about the Trump peace proposal that has paved the way for Netanyahu’s annexation plans.

“I don’t get involved in such matters. This is something for the spiritual leaders to decide,” said Chaim, a young man in his 20s who was taking a smoke break outside the city’s She’ar Hamelech Yeshiva. He was joined by his teacher, who responded similarly. “You’re not going to find people with opinions on such affairs here. It’s not relevant to us.”

Someone might want to alert Netanyahu — who has placed the issue at the top of his agenda, risking considerable international backlash in order to apply Israeli sovereignty over all West Bank settlements as well as the Jordan Valley.

Students stand outside the Shear Hamelech Yeshiva in the Modi’in Illit settlement on June 15, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Chaim and his rabbi are of course only two of Modiin Illit’s 75,000-plus inhabitants, and there are over 130 other settlements and dozens of outposts where opinions on US President Donald Trump’s plan, and the Israeli annexation it sanctions, surely vary. But settler leaders who spoke with The Times of Israel acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of their residents are pretty much unmoved by talk of the Israeli sovereignty bid, which has dominated headlines at home and abroad for months.

The apathy on the streets of the settlement also contrasts starkly with the heated debate among 24 West Bank mayors running them, who are split in their views regarding the plan.

One camp, led by the head of the Yesha umbrella council, came out ardently against the plan’s conditional offer of statehood to the Palestinians, as well as its transformation of at least 15 isolated settlements into enclaves surrounded by that future state.

An opposing group made up largely of council heads of highly populated municipalities close to the Green Line argue that the Trump plan’s green-lighting of annexation of roughly 30 percent of the West Bank is far more than has ever been offered by previous mediators, and that rejecting it due to its theoretical offer of statehood to the Palestinians would result in a missed opportunity that will not return.

The discourse among settler leaders has been passionate, and has even deteriorated into personal attacks, including some directed at Trump.

Nonetheless, they all appear to be in agreement that such passion is not widely shared among the public they represent.

The settlement of Modiin Illit, February 2019 (Flash90)

Outliers

Not included among the two camps of council chairmen for and against the plan are the three mayors of ultra-Orthodox settlements whose residents make up over a third of the roughly 450,000 settlers living the West Bank.

“The residents are outside the story, and don’t talk about it,” said Emmanuel local council chairman Eliyahu Gafni. “They came here due to the more affordable housing costs and are not interested in matters of security or diplomacy.”

Gafni was notably the only Haredi settlement mayor willing to speak to the media regarding the Trump plan, with Beitar Illit’s Meir Rubinstein and Modiin Illit’s Yaakov Gutterman remaining mum on the matter.

Gafni said he was approached about signing a letter expressing support for the Trump plan and his response was, “If you have a majority I’ll sign.” The attitude, he argued, is representative of the way all Haredi settler leaders approach such issues, avoiding involvement in political schisms when at all possible.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (middle) poses with settler leaders at the IDF’s Judea and Samaria Division Headquarters in the Beit El settlement on June 9, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Another settler leader, far from the Haredi community, who described his residents as being “outside” the ongoing annexation conversation is Har Adar local council chairman Haim Mendel Shaked, whose town of roughly 4,000 is nudged up against the Green Line northwest of Jerusalem.

“There has never been a discussion of whether Har Adar would be included in any peace deal, so the residents don’t get too excited about these plans,” he said.

“It’s also not a secret that we have quite a few left-wingers here,” added Shaked, who worked as a top aide to former Labor party prime minister Ehud Barak.

Consequently, Shaked said that many of the residents he’s spoken with are not supportive of unilateral moves, even if they have the backing of the US. “They’ll tell you there’s no way they’d accept the wide-scale annexation envisioned by the Trump plan. That it’s plundering Palestinian land.”

However, he did admit that many residents would be happy if Israeli sovereignty were to be applied to Har Adar exclusively, as the normalization of their status would lead to a rise in property value.

“What is clear is that [the Trump plan] is not a burning issue here. People are worried about the economic situation much more than anything,” he said.

The settlement of Har Adar (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

What’s it got to do with me?

Efrat local council chairman Oded Revivi offered a similar analysis, referencing a recent Channel 12 poll in which only eight percent of respondents who identified as right-wing said enacting Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank is the government’s most important task at hand. Sixty-eight percent said that the ongoing economic crisis was the most burning issue and 14% flagged the coronavirus pandemic as most urgent.

“It just shows how little discussion there is about it. A large percentage of the public, even in Judea and Samaria, do not know the details of the [Trump] plan and haven’t given it much thought,” said Revivi, who has led the group of mayors who have been outspoken in their support of the US proposal.

He explained that the percentage of settlers living in the West Bank for ideological reasons is growing smaller, as those moving there for the lower housing costs and “higher quality of life” are increasing.

However, Revivi added that if forced to offer an opinion on the matter, the diversity of responses would reflect the debate among settler leaders — where he claimed a majority support the Trump plan. (The Efrat mayor included in his count those mayors who have refrained from speaking publicly on the issue, asserting that they support the proposal behind closed doors).

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (center, with red tie), and head of Efrat local council Oded Revivi (right, with purple tie) during a visit to the settlement of Efrat, on February 20, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Revivi said that while many residents might not be aware of the plan’s details, it is his responsibility as mayor to participate in the government’s discussions regarding the proposal’s implementation. He added that part of the public’s apathy has to do with the fact that people are unaware how the application of Israeli sovereignty on their communities could impact their day-to-day lives.

Revivi says the upside could be significant. Among several examples, he referred to a 2015 law that provided financial benefits to Israelis who installed solar panels on their homes. Beyond the Green Line, the legislation took three more years to apply due to required adaptations to an area under military law. This would all change after annexation, he said.

Vision for Peace Conceptual Map published by the Trump Administration on January 28, 2020

But even Revivi refrained from describing the implementation of the Trump plan as his top priority as mayor, listing instead coronavirus-related issues and the approval of construction permits for his residents.

Asked if he felt the lack of public debate on the matter was troublesome, the Efrat mayor said, “I don’t think it’s a problem. I can understand why people are more concerned with their health and finances than with whether Israeli law will be applied here. There also won’t be a vote on [the matter], so they’re probably thinking, ‘How could my opinion really change anything?'”

Karnei Shomron local council chairman Igal Lahav added that while residents will be impacted by annexation in more ways than one, “the actual ramifications of such a decision are largely something that only the council chairman feels on a day-to-day basis.”

“The average resident does not have to deal with changing building plans or installing new electricity lines, which all have to be approved by the Civil Administration,” he added, referring to the Defense Ministry body that manages civil affairs in much of the West Bank.

Lahav, whose northern West Bank town numbers nearly 8,000, said every Israeli council chairman in the West Bank “is waiting for the day when he’ll be able to work directly with government offices and not with the Civil Administration” — not because the latter is necessarily less effective in and of itself, but because the Defense Ministry body also requires approval from the political echelon before carrying out most municipal services in the disputed territory.

Former defense minister Avigdor Liberman (right) tours the Karnei Shomron settlement on October 2, 2018 with local council chairman Igal Lahav (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Not someone else’s problem

In the central West Bank settlement of Beit El, meanwhile, Mayor Shai Alon believes most of his residents feel as he does: that the application of Israeli sovereignty over their communities would be a positive development, but not if done in the context of the Trump plan, which leaves the door open for a Palestinian state.

However, he too acknowledged that the issue’s salience is rather minimal. “There’s not a feeling of panic like there was during the [2005 Gaza] Disengagement,” he said.

“Even if no changes are made to the map” — which is being drawn up by a US-Israeli committee, and over which he and other mayors in his camp have fretted — “it will not be a catastrophe.”

Beit El Local Council chairman Shai Alon (left) gives Defense Minister Benny Gantz (right) a tour of the Jacob’s Rock archaeological site in Beit El on June 9, 2020 (Courtesy)

But he clarified that this does not mean he won’t be fighting against the implementation of the Trump plan on behalf of his residents.

Alon said that he explains to his residents how annexation would regulate their presence in the West Bank, neutralizing the “excuses” he currently receives from Israeli authorities who hesitate against investing beyond the Green Line for fear that the country’s presence there might be temporary.

“When they hear this, they understand the importance of the matter,” he said.

“At the end of the day, though, the fact that there’s not a major public debate on the matter is not a problem, because they know I represent them loyally,” Alon said, highlighting the fact that he was elected in 2018 with 80% of the vote in the settlement of over 6,000 inhabitants.

Har Hebron Regional Council chairman Yochai Damri. (Courtesy)

While the overwhelming apathy might not be surprising in the vast majority of settlements, one would expect that the 15 slated to become enclaves in any future Palestinian state would be far more engaged. But Har Hebron Regional Council chairman Yochai Damri, who represents five of those communities, admitted that things weren’t much different with his constituents.

Damri asserted, however, that the casual response to the plan stems from the refusal of the White House and Prime Minister’s Office to issue an updated version of the conceptual map released in January, or even publicize the ongoing discussions on how the exact borders will be drawn.

Damri said that when he explains his concerns regarding the enclaves to his residents, “there is not a single person who comes to me and says, ‘Listen, stop with your nonsense, accept the sovereignty and then we’ll worry about the details later.'”

Tirza Mavorach sits in her home in the Har Bracha settlement (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Damri, who lives in the Otniel settlement, a potential future enclave, said he’d held a town hall meeting over Zoom on Sunday in which nearly 100 residents participated, asking questions regarding the Trump plan in an effort to understand his position.

While residents might not be taking to the streets, Damri said he sees a “great deal of solidarity” in both his regional council and in the broader settler movement for his position against the Trump plan.

But several others in communities earmarked to become enclaves expressed far less concern regarding the Trump proposal.

Tirza Mavorach, 59, of the northern West Bank’s Har Bracha, said that while public representatives are voicing their concerns about the Trump plan as it’s part of their job, the issue is not something discussed by those in her circles.

“There have been so many plans that have come and gone,” Mavorach said. “This one seems to be the most favorable, but is it good? Nobody here knows how to answer that.”

“But am I worried? No, not at all.”

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