Fight over new West Bank roads drives settler leaders further apart
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Fight over new West Bank roads drives settler leaders further apart

Hunger strike for safer bypass routes bring to the fore debate over how best to pressure national leadership, especially Netanyahu

Jacob Magid

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

Shomron regional council head Yossi Dagan, Beit Aryeh regional council Avi Naim and Hadas Mizrahi at a protest tent set up outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on November 5, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Shomron regional council head Yossi Dagan, Beit Aryeh regional council Avi Naim and Hadas Mizrahi at a protest tent set up outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on November 5, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

When outgoing Yesha Council chief Avi Roeh exited the Prime Minister’s Office two weeks ago, the chairman of the settlement umbrella group apparently believed that another crisis had been averted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just pledged to invest NIS 800 million ($228 million) in West Bank roads and infrastructure development, a decision for which Roeh’s organization had long been lobbying.

One of the most outspoken local council leaders in Roeh’s organization, Samaria Regional Council Chairman Yossi Dagan, had launched a tent protest outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence the day before, a move Roeh feared would drive a wedge between the settlers and the right-wing government. But with the fresh promise from the prime minister, it was reasonable to assume that Dagan would pack up from Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, site of the premier’s residence, and head home.

“This is a significant message being sent to all the communities in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley after a long period of intensive work with various government ministries,” Roeh wrote in a letter to the 24 regional and local council leaders who make up his umbrella group following his October 25 meeting.

Settler leaders and bereaved families’ representatives berate the prime minister at a Likud faction meeting on November 6, 2017. (Courtesy: Roy Hadi)

But less than an hour later, Dagan released a statement of his own, making clear he had no intention of going anywhere. “We are fed up with promises and spin. Until a cabinet decision is made on the matter, we will sit here opposite the Prime Minister’s Residence,” he said. “Our residents’ lives will not be neglected.”

The settlement leaders were demanding a security package that would include bypass roads around Palestinian towns, additional cellphone towers to improve reception in rural areas, more street lights on poorly lit roads, and the bolstering of armored buses that travel through the West Bank.

The Samaria Regional Council chairman was joined by several prominent figures, including representatives of bereaved families who lost relatives in terror attacks on the very West Bank roads that Dagan was demanding be upgraded.

The showdown represented a larger dispute that has long been brewing between settler leaders over their movement’s proper relationship with Israel’s long-standing prime minister. The battle pits those who see Netanyahu as an ally who can be persuaded diplomatically behind closed doors against those who believe that the prime minister’s word means very little and that arm-twisting is the only viable option for achieving results for their movement and constituents.

Yesha Council head Avi Roeh speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem on March 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Roeh told The Times of Israel that Dagan had every right to protest, but that his organization trusted the prime minister and therefore decided against standing outside with the bereaved families as the winter cold set in.

He said that such protests should only be used as a last resort, when the government ignores the settlers’ requests. “We were able to reach this significant achievement civilly and behind closed doors,” Roeh pointed out.

But Dagan and his supporters laugh off Roeh’s claim. In their view, it was the protest that pushed Netanyahu to make his pledge to the Yesha Council less than 24 hours after the tent outside his official residence was erected. “Bibi (Netanyahu) wants us off his lawn, but doesn’t want to hand us a political victory, so he gave it to Yesha instead,” said Beit Aryeh Mayor Avi Naim, one of two West Bank council heads who joined Dagan and the bereaved families.

Dagan’s tent protest has also been a show of force for the man some are calling the de-facto leader of the extraparliamentary right-wing opposition. Nearly two dozen ministers and lawmakers from the right have stopped by the tent to stand in solidarity with Dagan and the families.

But Yesha officials argue that these “photo-ops” have had little impact. Roeh suggested that the visits by over a dozen Likud lawmakers were little more than an attempt to appeal to the more right-wing elements who vote in the ruling party’s primaries. Dagan, a long-time Likud activist, wields considerable clout within the Likud Central Committee, where he has worked to grow support for the settlement enterprise outside its traditional far-right bastions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second left) meets with Yesha Council leaders at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

On November 5, fully 12 days into the protest and with no cabinet decision on the horizon, Dagan, Naim, Kiryat Arba-Hebron Mayor Melachi Levinger and several representatives of the bereaved families intensified their campaign, announcing an open-ended hunger strike.

The next day, Netanyahu announced that he had earmarked NIS 200 million ($57 million) for the immediate paving of two bypass roads around Palestinian villages and that the remaining NIS 600 million ($171 million) promised to Roeh would be part of the 2019 budget whose first draft is currently being hammered out between Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

It was a more concrete pledge from the prime minister, which officials in the Samaria Regional Council attributed to Dagan’s efforts. But it was far less than the sum Netanyahu had originally promised would be allocated within the coming calendar year.

Dagan and the bereaved families once again declared Netanyahu’s pledge as no different from previous unkept promises, and announced they would be continuing their hunger strike until the money was actually transferred by means of a binding cabinet decision.

But at this stage, the voices of opposition within the settlement movement began to grow louder. “Dagan is using the bereaved families for his own political gain,” one West Bank regional council leader told The Times of Israel on Monday, reflecting the views of many others.

Hunger-striking bereaved family representative Ruti Hasano is carried off in a stretcher after fainting at a protest tent outside the Prime Minister’s Residence on November 7, 2017. (Roy Hadi)

Those accusations intensified on Tuesday when organizers of the protest distributed a picture of one of the hunger-striking, bereaved mothers lying on a stretcher after having fainted. Dagan and Naim are seen looking over Ruti Hasano before she was taken away by medics for treatment.

“She was the one that wanted the photo used, but we realized afterwards that it might have been in bad taste,” one Samaria Regional Council official said.

Side-politics

The internal bickering was only exacerbated by what many considered Yesha Council’s botched leadership election last week.

In early August, Roeh announced he would be stepping down as chairman after five years leading the organization. Seen as a unifying figure, Roeh is credited with bringing mayors from Haredi and secular settlements into an umbrella group long dominated by the nationalist-religious camp, which makes up some 30% of the population of Israelis living beyond the Green Line.

Yesha Council leaders initially said a decision on electing the new chair would be made within days, but then the organization dragged its feet. The search for a candidate continued despite Karnei Shomron Mayor Yigal Lahav announcing his interest in the job immediately after Roeh resigned.

Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi’s name was also raised as a possible candidate, with supporters noting his close ties to the Prime Minister’s Office, fluent English and his reputation as a skilled communicator, especially with foreign audiences.

Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi (L) and Karnei Shomron Mayor Yigal Lahav. (Courtesy Avi Hyman Communications, Karnei Shomron local council)

Seemingly unsatisfied with either option, the council leaders tried unsuccessfully to convince other candidates to run.

But on November 2 — with Dagan and the bereaved families beginning the 10th day of their protest — the council announced that Kedumim Mayor Hananel Dorani would be the organization’s next chairman.

According to one regional council chief, Dorani was approached by a group of settlement leaders and activists who believed that Lahav’s and Revivi’s “pro-Palestinian views” would compromise the organization. They managed to convince the Kedumim mayor to run.

What the regional council chairman characterized as a “putsch” led Lahav to not only withdraw his candidacy, but announce that he was leaving the organization altogether. The acrimony and fallout from the sudden announcement also led Revivi, who had yet to officially file for candidacy, to keep out of the race.

In its statement announcing Dorani’s victory, the Yesha Council noted that he was the lone candidate — a curiously underwhelming endorsement for the group’s new leader.

Unless Dorani can stem the ill will generated by the sidelining of two key settlement leaders, Roeh’s work to make the council more inclusive and influential may unravel quickly.

Kedumim Mayor Hananel Dorani (C) visits the protest tent set up by Beit El residents outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 18, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Unity is strength…?

While supporters of Dagan admit that unity among settler leaders would be nice, they argue that the Samaria Regional Council chairman has been able to strong-arm Netanyahu into ostensibly pro-settlement policies even without the backing of the entire Yesha Council.

In June, when Dagan learned of an Israeli plan to expand the crowded Palestinian city of Qalqilya, he unleashed an aggressive public campaign against the proposal, calling it a “reward for terrorism.” So successful was his lobbying that the cabinet voted one month later to freeze the plan initiated by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and supported by Netanyahu.

Yet Dagan had little negative to say about the Yesha Council. Speaking with The Times of Israel, he said his regional council works in cooperation with the umbrella group. “Of course there are disagreements, but that’s totally fine. I’m not involved in the internal debates,” he said.

Yossi Dagan (L), head of the Samaria Regional Council that oversees settlements in the northern West Bank, led a protest on the outskirts of Qalqilya calling on the government to cancel a plan allowing the Palestinian Authority to expand the city of Qalqilya. (Samaria Regional Council)

“Yesha sees as its mission to represent the interests of all residents in Judea of Samaria, of which the ones living in the more remote communities are a minority,” explained Dagan’s longtime adviser David Haivri. He suggested that the disputes have had less to do with personal differences.

“At times it seems that they may be willing to sacrifice those remote communities for the ‘greater good.’ Yossi Dagan, on the other hand, sees his mission [as working] to build, develop and protect all of the communities in Samaria (northern West Bank) without compromising the development and future of even the most remote foothold of Jewish settlement,” Haivri added.

Whatever its cause, many are wondering if Dagan’s refusal to work more closely with the broader Yesha Council is hurting the settlement movement.

“Looking at things from above as an elected official, they’re not as united as they used to be,” said deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud). “It’s harder for us to help them when they are divided by petty politics.”

Former Peace Now activist and author Anat Roth. (screen capture: YouTube/Begin Center)

Dr. Anat Roth, who researches the settlement movement at the Israel Democracy Institute and Kohelet Forum, explained that the Yesha Council lost the trust of its constituents when it failed to prevent the 2005 Gaza Disengagement. The event led to the rise of the Samaria Regional Council opposition that still exists today, she said.

Roth credited Roeh and council director general Shiloh Adler for bringing many settler leaders who had abandoned the group following the disengagement back into the fold, with the significant exception of Yossi Dagan.

“I think Yossi [Dagan] is hurting [the Yesha Council], which is at the height of its power when it is the primary body representing the settlement movement.”

While Dagan may be able to achieve “tactical” results from his protest, “a divided settler leadership loses legitimacy in public opinion, and in turn is taken less seriously by the government,” she argued.

Roth cited the Knesset’s February passing of the outpost legalization law and the October establishment of a government committee to legalize outposts as two of the many accomplishments achieved by the Yesha Council in those times when it is able to enlist the help of all West Bank council leaders, Dagan included.

“Your ability to win achievements from this government is greater when you work together as one unit. This was why the Yesha Council was born in the first place. Five fingers are weak on their own, but when they unite into a fist, they can pack a heavy punch,” she explained.

Elected in a manner which many West Bank mayors have deemed illegitimate, Dorani has his work cut out for him in bringing settler leaders back under one roof. However, as long as Dagan is able to strong-arm concessions out of Netanyahu, Dorani may struggle to make the case that such unity is even necessary.

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