Beleaguered head of key settlement umbrella group announces resignation

Yesha Council chief David Elhayani’s popularity has been low within West Bank settlers’ political leadership, due to his support for Netanyahu rival Sa’ar’s New Hope party

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Former Yesha Council chairman and head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council in the West Bank David Elhayani at a protest tent outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Former Yesha Council chairman and head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council in the West Bank David Elhayani at a protest tent outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

David Elhayani, the chairman of the Yesha Council umbrella organization representing local authorities in West Bank settlements, announced on Sunday that he would be stepping down from his role, after a tempestuous three-year tenure.

In his letter of resignation on Sunday, Elhayani emphasized “differences of opinion” that arose during his leadership, but insisted that despite these problems and the COVID-19 pandemic, which dominated much of his time as Yesha chair, he did succeed in advancing the interests of the settlements.

“I saw in my position a national mission of the first order, and I undertook it out of a deep faith in the importance of the settlements for the future of the State of Israel,” said the outgoing chairman.

He also referred in his letter to “political developments and new elections” as reasons for his departure, although it remains unclear if he is seeking to run for the Knesset.

Elhayani was narrowly elected Yesha chair in November 2019, in a race in which he had become a compromise candidate, after two leading candidates quit the election at the last moment.

Although originally a member of the opposition Likud party and a close ally of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Elhayani switched his allegiance to the rival right-wing New Hope party, formed by renegade Likud member Gideon Sa’ar, ahead of the March 2021 elections.

(From L-R) Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman, then-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)

This step significantly weakened his standing among the residents and political leadership of the settlements, who have traditionally aligned with the right-wing, religious bloc of parties led by Netanyahu.

Opposition to Elhayani continued to grow within the settlement movement from both residents and local mayors and council heads, creating a situation in which he lacked public and political support despite nominally being the political figurehead for the settlement movement.

Some settlement local councils did not transfer the requisite budgets to Yesha as a result of these political disputes, while some local mayors and council chairmen publicly opposed him and called for his resignation.

Last month, dozens of settlement local council members signed a letter calling for him to resign after he backed the government’s position on settlements legislation, which was at odds with that of many settler leaders, who adopted the Netanyahu-led opposition’s stance.

This state of affairs eroded Elhayani’s authority and made his position untenable in the long term.

The process for selecting a new chairman of the Yesha Council will be initiated at the upcoming general assembly of the organization, Elhayani said in his resignation letter.

He added that he will continue in his position as head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, where he lives in the Argaman settlement.

View of the Jewish settlement of Eli, in the West Bank, on January 17, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Oded Revivi, mayor of the Efrat settlement, said that Elhayani’s resignation was an opportunity for the settlement movement “to stop and think about what it wants to be in another 10 or 20 years,” adding that the movement had “missed different opportunities to strengthen our [political] home and thereby Israel,” in the years since the Oslo peace process and the Disengagement from Gaza in 2005.

Revivi was a proponent of former US president Donald Trump’s peace plan, which would have extended Israeli sovereignty to large areas of the West Bank, including Efrat, but would also call for the establishment of a Palestinian state, which many settler leaders within Yesha opposed, including Elhayani himself.

Disagreements among mayors in the West Bank settlements over the Trump plan created a further divide in the Yesha Council, and further weakened Elhayani.

“I hope that someone will come up from among us who will know how to think about how Judea and Samaria will look in 2040… not someone who will focus on a vision that is not obtainable at this time, but rather will understand the need to settle in peoples hearts — not as a slogan, but as a real way of life,” said Revivi following Elhayani’s announcement, using the biblical term for the West Bank.

Head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, Shlomo Neeman, praised Elhayani for “giving his soul for the settlements in Judea and Samaria,” and said that despite the differences of opinion, he had always done what was right for the region.

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