Netanyahu ally elected head of settler umbrella body

Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhayani edges out candidate backed by group of council chairmen seeking more aggressive approach in lobbying government

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

Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhayani. (Miri Tzachi)
Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhayani. (Miri Tzachi)

Settler leaders elected Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhayani as the next head of the Yesha Council umbrella body, which represents the settlement movement, Monday in a razor-thin vote.

Elhayani, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defeated Karnei Shomron mayor Igal Lahav in a head-to-head battle after two other candidates dropped out of the race moments before the vote opened.

Elhayani and Lahav represented opposite sides of an intensifying rift between an older generation of settler leaders that is closely aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a younger group of council chairmen who believe in acting more aggressively on behalf of the movement, even if that means being at odds with right-wing governments that the Likud chief has led.

Elhayani, from the old-timer’s camp, edged out Lahav 13-12 after the votes of 24 West Bank council chairman plus settler elder Zeev “Zambish” Hever were counted.

(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)

Elhayani, a farmer from the Argaman settlement, has chaired the Jordan Valley Regional Council since 2009. The 59-year-old father of three will be just the second secular person to head the Yesha Council, which is made up almost exclusively of religious local politicians.

Upon receiving the news of his victory, Elhayani said in a statement that he would work to ensure that settlers will be treated as Israeli citizens in every sense, by working toward annexation of the West Bank along with improving the quality of life for those beyond the Green Line. He then made a call for unity among the various settler leaders and urged Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz to form a unity government.

Elhayani will succeed Kedumim local council chairman Hananel Dorani, who decided not to seek reelection after single two-year term.

Elhayani, a long-time Likud member, heaped praise on Netanyahu after the premier said he would annex the Jordan Valley if he won last September’s election. However, the results of that vote were indefinitive, and the annexation plans have consequently been put on hold.

After the vote, Netanyahu called Elhayani to congratulate him.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu told [Elhayani] that they will continue working in full cooperation in order to strengthen settlements,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.

Made up of the Israeli local and regional council chairpeople in the West Bank, the Yesha Council aims to promote Jewish settlement in the West Bank by lobbying the government on behalf of settler interests as well as advancing the movement’s goals abroad, including via a de facto “foreign minister.” Critics have accused the group of being a hazy hodgepodge with no clear mandate. Elhayani will remain Jordan Valley Council head while taking up the Yesha post.

Speaking to The Times of Israel ahead of Monday’s vote, Elhayani said the number one reason he was running was to improve the “quality of life” for Israelis in the West Bank.

“Our residents are sick of the poor infrastructure that has led to power outages, water shortages and traffic jams. It is the responsibility of settler leadership to provide adequate services,” Elhayani said. “You cannot improve quality of life until you improve infrastructure.”

David Elhayani, mayor of the Jordan Valley Regional Council Arvot HaYarden settlement speaks to AFP at his office in the West Bank on September 11, 2019 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The Jordan Valley leader, long known for his distinctive facial hair, said one way to address such issues is to apply Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank, thereby removing much of the bureaucratic red tape. However, he recognized that such a move is likely not going to take place in the short term.

“We still need to be aggressive in demanding infrastructure improvements in the meantime, in addition to preventing a Palestinian takeover of Area C so that there will be something to [annex] when the time comes,” he asserted, referring to sections of West Bank under Israeli security and administrative control.

Elhayani said another one of his goals as chief settler representative will be to unite the 24 West Bank council chairmen, who many see as divided as ever over philosophical disagreements regarding how to best interact with the government.

Israel’s 2005 pullout from 25 communities in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank caused a split among settler leaders, between those affiliated with the establishment and those who thought more could have been done to prevent the government from carrying out its decision.

Elhayani said with his more “aggressive” demeanor, Yesha members will “finally have someone who will fight for them.”

Asked whether he felt a need to adapt his strategy depending on the makeup of the next coalition, the Jordan Valley mayor asserted that he would “present the interests of our residents no matter who is in government.”

View of the settlement of Elazar, in the West Bank, on February 5, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The settlement movement enjoyed wide support from the right-wing Israeli government that has held power since early 2015, especially after US President Donald Trump entered the White House in January 2017.

But the recent election results did not give the Likud leader and his natural right-wing coalition partners enough seats to form a coalition, and if any government is to be formed in the coming weeks it will almost certainly include the centrist Blue and White party, which received, by a narrow margin, the most votes on September 17.

The slate’s leader Benny Gantz has expressed unwavering support for the so-called settlement blocs — highly populated areas, generally close to the Green Line, which most Israelis believe will be maintained in any peace deal, and he too backs annexing the Jordan Valley. However, the party’s platform hints at a necessity for concessions in the form of evacuations of settlements deep in the West Bank in the context of an agreement with the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R)
with Yesha Council chairman Hananel Dorani, November 7, 2014. (Courtesy)

Policies such as a building freeze in those far-off settlements would of course be a nonstarter for the Yesha Council, which may have gotten used to working with a prime minister who boasted of telling Washington that he does not differentiate between isolated communities and those inside the “blocs.”

The umbrella body has also enjoyed recognition and cooperation from the White House, whose recently retired peace envoy Jason Greenblatt said he prefers referring to the settlements deemed illegitimate by the international community as “neighborhoods and cities.

While Trump still has over a year left in his term and may win re-election, there is also the possibility that the next Yesha Council chairman will be forced to reckon with a Democrat-run White House. Several contenders for the party’s nomination, including senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have campaigned on withholding aid to Israel in order to pressure it over settlements. And even those who take more moderate approaches will seek to curtail settlement building through other means.

Theoretically, the more imminent challenge for the settlement movement would be the unrolling of the Trump administration’s peace plan. But US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has said it would not require the evacuation of a single settlement.

Elhayani said the plan was not a major cause for worry.

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