Decrying ‘verbal violence,’ Rivlin urges softer tone in debate over annexation

President’s comments come after settler leader says Trump is ‘not a friend of Israel’ and his peace plan is like a ‘gun to the head,’ drawing sharp rebuke from Netanyahu allies

President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem during the Knesset elections on March 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem during the Knesset elections on March 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday decried what he described as offensive rhetoric in the debate among right-wing Israelis regarding US President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, and the green light for West Bank annexation included in it.

Some settler leaders have in recent days criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cooperation with the plan, which includes the recognition of a future Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank. Netanyahu and his allies have similarly published strongly worded statements against the plan’s critics.

“We are brothers and sisters, I want to remind us today, and not in an abstract or distant way,” Rivlin said in a video statement. “In recent days, the question of annexation is once again the subject of difficult discourse. Us and them. Are you with us or against us? We all suffer from this kind of discourse.

“Discussing fateful questions — and the question of annexation is indeed a fateful one — must take place. It must take place in every country that wants the best for its people,” he added.

“Every person has their own view of the world. This is the beating heart of Israeli democracy. We do not recoil from the critics or the questioners, but we must beware of those who silence the conversation. We must not silence questions, doubts or criticism from any political side. Disagree — yes. Argue — absolutely. But the verbal violence, the name-calling, the ridiculing and the contempt must stop.

“I, who remember well the attempts to silence the critics at the time of Oslo and the disengagement and remember how hard we worked to recover from that shutdown, make this request of you — enough,” he concluded.

Rivlin was referring to bitter national debates about the signing of the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the early 1990s and the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. During both periods, right-wing figures accused the country’s elites and the media of stifling their criticism of the planned moves.

David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council and the Yesha Council of West Bank mayors, at a Yesha protest tent near the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, February 4, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The president’s plea came hours after David Elhayani, who chairs the Yesha umbrella council of settlement mayors, publicly condemned the Trump plan for the second time in as many days.

“If someone comes to me with a cake while holding a gun to my head, will I just take some cake and then say ‘goodbye?’” he said, explaining his need to warn of the dangers he perceives. “My duty is to save us from the existential threats.”

Elhyani, the Jordan Valley Regional Council head, has been leading settler opposition to the US plan, which includes annexation of wide swaths of the West Bank but leaves open the possibility of a Palestinian state.

Elhayani on Wednesday told the Haaretz daily that Trump and his senior adviser Jared Kushner have shown through their peace proposal that “they are not friends of the State of Israel.”

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk with reporters before a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, January 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Elhayani’s comments to Haaretz drew harsh rebuke from Netanyahu and other right-wing leaders.

“I strongly condemn the words of the Yesha Council chairman,” Netanyahu said in a statement that insisted that “President Trump is a great friend of the State of Israel.”

“President Trump’s vision for peace includes [a requirement of the Palestinians] to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Israeli security control throughout the territory west of Jordan, a unified Jerusalem, the disarming of Hamas, ending the right of return [for Palestinian] refugees to enter Israel, and more,” he said.

Elhayani and nearly a dozen other settler leaders have been insisting on seeing the map before it is finalized in order to influence how the borders will be drawn.

They have taken particular issue with the conceptual map introduced at the Trump plan’s January unveiling in Washington, which depicted 15 isolated Israeli settlements as enclaves surrounded by land earmarked for the future Palestinian state. The Palestinians have rejected the entire Trump plan outright.

A Palestinian shepherd herds his flock near the Israeli settlement of Argaman, in the Jordan Valley, a strip of West Bank land along the border with Jordan, Monday, Dec. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Separately Wednesday, another prominent settler leader, who asked not to be named, told The Times of Israel that he and his colleagues are prepared to “blow up” Netanyahu’s plan to annex their towns in the West Bank if the premier persists in refusing to share the joint US-Israeli committee’s map.

The US administration is highly unlikely to approve an Israeli move to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank by the July 1 date envisioned by Netanyahu, a well-placed source told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

In fact, it could take weeks and possibly months before the joint US-Israel mapping committee concludes its work, which the White House has declared a precondition that must be met before it would give a green light for annexation, the source said.

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