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Interview

Lambasting ‘inciter’ Trump, settler leader expresses relief president on way out

‘It is easier to stand up to someone who is seen as a foe, as opposed to someone who’s seen as a friend,’ says David Elhayani, citing the Trump plan for a Palestinian state

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

Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani at a protest tent outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani at a protest tent outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A top settler leader is pushing back against the narrative that his movement received a major boost during Donald Trump’s four years in the White House, arguing that the outgoing US president fanned the flames of racism while offering mere symbolic measures that didn’t concretely help solidify Jewish presence beyond the Green Line.

In a Sunday interview with The Times of Israel, the chairman of the Yesha umbrella council of settlement mayors, David Elhayani, was dismissive of a series of steps taken by the Trump administration to normalize Israel’s presence beyond the Green Line.

These included a reversal of policy that deemed settlements “illegal,” a directive to label all US exports from the settlements as “made in Israel,” the extension of scientific bilateral cooperation to the settlements, and a peace plan that envisions Israel annexing every one of its settlements in the West Bank.

“So they declared that settlements are legal. How does that help the settlement movement? Has it changed our status? Is there [Israeli] sovereignty here? There is nothing here. These statements are kalaam fadi,” said the straight-talking Elhayani, using the Arabic word for bullshit.

In this March 25, 2019, photo, US President Donald Trump (left) smiles at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after signing a proclamation recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The settler leader maintained that it was the perception of Trump in the eyes of many in Israel as a “friend” that made him more dangerous to the Jewish state and the settlement movement in particular. In fact, Elhayani expressed relief over Trump’s loss to President-elect Joe Biden, despite the Democrat’s longstanding opposition to settlements.

“It is easier to stand up to someone who is seen as a foe, as opposed to someone who’s seen as a friend,” he argued.

Trump’s legacy in the West Bank

Elhayani said that while Trump would be widely linked with the events of the past several weeks — his refusal to accept his election loss, the Capitol storming, the failure to carry out a peaceful transfer of power and his second impeachment by the House, to most Israelis he would be remembered as a good president.

“Not to me, though,” he clarified.

The settler leader’s biggest bone to pick with the US president is over the peace plan he introduced in January 2020. While green-lighting Israel’s future annexation of large swaths of the West Bank, the plan also creates borders for a Palestinian state on the roughly 70 percent of the semi-contiguous land that remains beyond the Green Line, in addition to several other small areas adjacent to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

That state, however, is contingent on the Palestinian Authority fulfilling a long list of conditions including the demilitarization of Hamas, accepting an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, accepting continued overarching Israeli security control of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and a ban on Palestinian refugees returning to the Jewish state.

The West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Efraim on the hills of the Jordan Valley, February 18, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit, File)

Elhayani, though, dismissed the caveats and those who claim they prove that such a state will never come about.

“If that really were the case, then what’s the point of the peace plan?” he asked rhetorically.

“The Americans are not willing to give us a centimeter of sovereignty before there is a Palestinian state,” Elhayani insisted, calling such an entity an “existential danger to Israel.”

Apples and oranges

He compared Trump’s record on settlements to that of his predecessor Barack Obama. Comparing the latter’s second term to the former’s sole term, figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics show that under Trump, construction starts in the West Bank fell by 35% and growth of the Israeli population in the area dropped from roughly 4.5% to 3.5%.

However, Hagit Ofran from the Peace Now settlement watchdog said that Elhayani was “playing with the numbers.”

She pointed out that in addition to the CBS data not having yet been updated to include the last quarter of 2020, Elhayani had conveniently chosen to focus on Obama’s second term as opposed to his first, when construction starts during the latter were 26% lower than they were during Trump’s time in office.

Roadworks expand a road to Israeli settlements inside the West Bank, near the city of Bethlehem, March 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

Ofran argued that planning approvals, the building of roads and infrastructure to serve the settlements, and the establishment of outposts are all better indicators of the growth of the settlement movement, and all three areas saw major increases under Trump.

But Elhayani’s opposition to the Republican president was more fundamental.

“I would rather we build and the Americans condemn than us not building and the Americans not condemning,” he said, arguing that construction had been insufficient over the past four years, even though the Trump administration never objected to it.

This is not the first time Elhayani has harshly criticized Trump. The Yesha chairman made headlines last year after the peace plan was unveiled, when he declared that Trump was “not a friend of Israel.”

What made his Sunday comments so remarkable was his criticism of the US president on issues unrelated to Israel and his willingness to declare Biden, a deep-rooted critic of the settlement movement, his preferred candidate for the White House.

(From L-R) Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhayani, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman applaud after the government authorized the legalization of the Mevo’ot Yericho outpost at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Jordan Valley Regional Council, September 15, 2019 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

Recognizing that he represents a lone voice among his colleagues in the Yesha Council, Elhayani said, “When everyone says Trump is a friend, it’s hard to find the person who has the balls to come and say, ‘Folks, this is not a friend.'”

For his part, Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman flatly disagreed with the Yesha chairman’s analysis, saying the recognition that the Trump plan gave of the Jewish people’s right to the biblical land beyond the Green Line known as Judea and Samaria is not something to be easily dismissed.

“This compared to the Democrats and Biden who do not say anything at all about the right of the people of Israel to Nablus and Hebron. The Democrats think that two peoples have a right to the same land. That’s a huge difference,” Ne’eman said, declaring that he’d much prefer a Republican in the White House.

US Vice President Joe Biden addresses the 4th National J Street Conference at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, on September 30, 2013. (Ron Sachs/J Street)

Nonetheless, Elhayani scoffed at the series of moves that Trump’s biggest supporters point to when touting his pro-Israel credentials.

“What did the relocation of the embassy give to the settlement movement? What did recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights give to the settlement movement?” he asked.

“The Abraham Accords were completely against the settlement movement because we lost sovereignty because of them,” he added, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to shelve his controversial West Bank annexation plans in exchange for normalization with the United Arab Emirates.

“So what did we get from Trump? Is there sovereignty here? Are there more residents here? Are there more construction starts? Show me something real that changed. Not words. In practice, nothing changed.”

On Tuesday, Elhayani announced he would be supporting Netanyahu’s rival Gideon Sa’ar in March’s elections.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

But it wasn’t just Trump’s policies on Israel that Elhayani found unsatisfactory, but also what he viewed as the president’s embrace of fringe and anti-Semitic groups in the US, which culminated in this month’s deadly riot at the US Capitol.

Asked whether Trump had been responsible for the storming by his supporters that left five people dead, Elhayani responded, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

Expanding the use of the metaphor, the settler leader said those who descended on Washington under the illusion the election had been stolen from them “just needed the match to light them on fire and that match apparently ended up being the words of the president of the United States.”

Violent protesters, loyal to US President Donald Trump, storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP/ John Minchillo)

“We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump said in a speech to thousands of supporters before many of them charged into the Capitol. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”

To Elhayani, who is the first settler leader to speak out so negatively about the US president and his role in the DC events, the president had been clear enough. “Sometimes you don’t have to say something explicitly for your message to come across.”

“He encouraged incitement and racism throughout his term not just on that day,” Elhayani said, adding that Trump had long balked on calling out anti-Semitism and racism.

While the president has in fact gone on to condemn such discrimination, the settler leader said Trump did not do so quickly enough. “When you’re caught with your pants down, you can’t just say, ‘Oops, I’ll just quickly pick them up.'”

US President Donald Trump speaks at a rally of his supporters in Washington, January 6, 2021. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
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