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Analysis

As Netanyahu heads back to DC, settlers now find themselves on the outside

Settlement leaders were euphoric during PM’s trip to see Trump’s peace plan launched. Now, their cherished annexation is suspended, and they’re accusing the PM of deception

Jacob Magid

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting schoolkids in the West Bank settlement of Elkana on the first day of school, September 1, 2019. (Courtesy)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting schoolkids in the West Bank settlement of Elkana on the first day of school, September 1, 2019. (Courtesy)

What a difference nine months make.

In late January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed off to Washington, DC, promising to “make history” in the US capital where US President Donald Trump would unveil his long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

Delighted with the proposal and its pro-Israel orientation, Netanyahu brought along with him a delegation of settler leaders whom he expected were finally being handed a peace plan that they could get behind — a plan that recognized the Jewish people’s historic ties to the West Bank (biblical Judea and Samaria) and did not ask Israel to uproot its communities there. In fact, Netanyahu initially believed, the plan and its context amounted to a US blessing for Israel to immediately annex all of the settlements, as part of the 30 percent of the West Bank allocated to Israel.

Nine months have passed, and Mr. Netanyahu is again heading to Washington, where on Tuesday he’ll sign a normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates and a “Declaration of Peace” with Bahrain — the first such treaties with Arab states in more than a quarter of a century.

But this time, at least as of this writing, no settler leaders are slated to join the prime minister for the celebratory ceremony. Indeed, many of the West Bank mayors wouldn’t agree to tag along if invited.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with US President Donald Trump during an event with in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 28, 2020. (AP/Susan Walsh)

While the settler delegation in Washington in January watched that White House ceremony with a feeling of “euphoria,” as Trump appeared to signal US support for immediate Israeli annexation, and Netanyahu shortly afterwards vowed to extend Israeli sovereignty to the settlements and the Jordan Valley within days, they have come crashing down to earth in the months since.

The frustration began to build just days after the peace plan was unveiled, when the US asked Israel to hold off on annexation until after a joint mapping committee finished demarcating the exact parameters for the controversial move.

That committee stalled for months as the coronavirus pandemic intensified and as the Trump administration appeared to get cold feet on backing annexation, due in part to the growing opposition from governments around the world. Particularly opposed to the move were allies in the Gulf whom the US was hoping to bring into the circle of peace. There were also reservations regarding annexation coming from within Netanyahu’s own coalition government, via the Blue and White party.

Settler leadership frustration boiled over last month when news broke of the Israel-UAE normalization agreement. This wasn’t because the settler leaders don’t recognize the significant breakthrough, but because it has come with a price: Indefinitely postponing annexation. The August 13 joint US-Israel-UAE statement specified that Israel has agreed to “suspend” the move. While Netanyahu insists it is “still on the table,” the expansion of Israeli sovereignty to all settlements, seen as imminent in January, is looking increasingly remote.

“Netanyahu has deceived us. I cannot vote for him again,” David Elhayani, the chairman of the Yesha umbrella council of settler mayors, told Channel 12 hours after the UAE deal was announced.

Given the public’s overwhelming support for the deal, support further bolstered by Friday’s Bahrain agreement and the prospect of more to follow, the West Bank mayors have refrained from launching a full-blown campaign against Netanyahu as they have done in the past. But with reports now emerging that the premier is preventing the Defense Ministry body that authorizes settlement construction from convening, they may be getting closer to taking the gloves off.

Left to right: Gush Etzion mayor Shlomo Ne’eman, Kedumim mayor Hananel Dorani, Yesha Council director Yigal Dilmoni, Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani, Har Hebron mayor Yochai Damri, Hebron Jewish community mayor Hillel Horowitz; at a protest tent against the Trump peace plan in Jerusalem, on June 20, 2020. (Courtesy)

“Why are they selling our homes in exchange for diplomatic agreements?” asked a frustrated Yigal Dilmoni during an interview this week with the Kan public broadcaster. Dilmoni, the Yesha council’s director, vowed that his group “will be slowly increasing the pressure” on the Netanyahu government in the coming weeks if the “building freeze” continues.

The head of Israel’s National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat (2nd-R, in front), makes his way to board a plane as he prepares to leave Abu Dhabi on September 1, 2020, at the end of a visit on normalizing Israel-UAE relations. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)

“Now it’s Dubai, tomorrow it will be Sudan, after that it will be the US elections. They’ll continue trading our homes for diplomatic deals, and this we must stop,” he declared.

Nine months later, however, the settler leaders will also be going up against an apparently less empathetic American administration, which the mayors have spent recent months haranguing in the media for not being “true friends” of Israel.

As the White House becomes more focused on expanding Israel’s ties in the Gulf, it seems to have adopted rhetoric markedly less friendly to the settler movement.

US President Donald Trump listens as Jared Kushner speaks in the Oval Office of the White House on September 11, 2020, after Trump announced the US had brokered a peace deal between Israel and Bahrain. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

“What we did with our plan was we were trying to save the two-state solution,” senior White House adviser and Trump peace plan architect Jared Kushner told reporters on Wednesday. “Because… if we kept going with the status quo… ultimately, Israel would have eaten up all the land in the West Bank.”

The comments marked some of the most specific statements the Trump administration has made against Israel’s expanding settlement enterprise, and were rather different in tone from speeches US officials had made in the past, such as when explaining their preference for labeling settlements as “neighborhoods and cities.”

US ambassador to Israel David Friedman (2nd-L), with Head of Efrat regional council Oded Revivi and heads of local councils in the West Bank, during a visit to the Israeli settlement of Efrat, in Gush Etzion, February 20, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Reflecting on the settlement movement’s current standing, Efrat mayor Oded Revivi told The Times of Israel earlier this week, “I think we’re in a worse place.”

Revivi was one of the handful of settler mayors who supported the Trump deal even as annexation receded after January, and among an even smaller number who backed the UAE normalization agreement — annexation suspension and all.

He said the plurality of mayors who campaigned aggressively against the Trump peace plan over its inclusion of a Palestinian state were responsible for the movement’s sudden fall from grace.

“They didn’t understand the full picture when they came out against the plan and they burned a lot of bridges in doing so,” Revivi said. “They lost contact with the majority of Israelis [who support the Trump plan and the peace deals it is yielding] and definitely lost points both here and in Washington.”

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