PM: 'Instead of gratitude, he wants to deny this friendship'

Netanyahu lambastes settler leader for saying Trump is no friend of Israel

Right-wing leaders join fierce criticism of ‘unparalleled ingratitude’ of Yesha Council chief David Elhayani, amid fears that offending US president could torpedo annexation plans

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

(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 Mevo'ot Yericho, a West Bank settlement, at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Jordan Valley Regional Council, September 15, 2019 (Haim Tzach/GPO)
(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 Mevo'ot Yericho, a West Bank settlement, at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Jordan Valley Regional Council, September 15, 2019 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday lashed out at a top settler leader who claimed US President Donald Trump is not a true friend of Israel, as the quarrel within the right-wing camp over the US peace plan appeared to deteriorate into a full-blown row.

“I strongly condemn the words of the Yesha Council chairman,” Netanyahu said in a statement, hours after the leader of the umbrella group of settler mayors David Elhayani 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.”

Netanyahu was joined by other right-wing leaders condemning Elhayani and defending Trump’s pro-Israel credentials, knowing that without the support of the US president, they have no hopes of being able to carry out the planned annexation of parts of the West Bank.

Elhayani said that the president and Kushner, his son-in-law, “do not have Israel’s security and settlement interests in mind” and that “the only thing they’re concerned about regarding the plan is promoting their own interests ahead of the upcoming (US) election.”

Netanyahu responded by insisting that “President Trump is a great friend of the State of Israel.”

“He has led historical moves for the State of Israel, including: Recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing the legality of settlements in Judea and Samaria (West Bank),” Netanyahu said.

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

“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.

“It is unfortunate that, instead of gratitude, there is someone who is trying to deny this friendship, which has never been better,” Netanyahu added.

Netanyahu’s comments echo what one settler leader told The Times of Israel had been the message relayed to him by American officials. He said Washington had been disappointed by the “ingratitude” demonstrated by West Bank mayors campaigning against the peace plan.

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin — who had joined Netanyahu for a meeting with Elhayani and other settler leaders on Tuesday, which ultimately sparked the row — subsequently piled on the criticism against Elhayani, who is the Yesha Council chairman and Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman.

“The chutzpadik and irresponsible remarks about the US president are deserving of all condemnation and criticism. They demonstrate unparalleled ingratitude and cause great damage, particularly during a period when such an important effort is being made to to advance the historic move of applying sovereignty [to the West Bank],” he said in a statement.

Elhayani responded to Levin, calling him duplicitous.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, and then-Tourism Minister Yariv Levin during a meeting to discuss mapping extension of Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, held in the Ariel settlement, February 24, 2020. (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)

“It would be best if Yariv Levin would shed his snakeskin, look into the eyes of Likud voters and admit his responsibility for the drawing of a map (that will lead to settlers) evacuations and establishing a Palestinian state,” Elhayani said.

Levin is a member of the joint Israeli-US mapping committee, which for the past several months has been working to delineate the exact parts of the West Bank territory over which Washington is prepared to recognize Israeli sovereignty.

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 plan’s January unveiling, which depicted 15 isolated settlements as enclaves surrounded by land earmarked for the future Palestinian state.

In addition to Netanyahu and Levin, Yamina party leaders also spoke out following Elhayani’s statement though they refrained from directly criticizing the Yesha chairman, who they had hosted at their faction meeting earlier this week in what some analysts described as an attempt to establish a united front against Netanyahu and the Trump plan.

(From L-R) Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan, Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked, Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman and Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani and Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett, during a Yamina faction meeting in the Knesset on June 1, 2020. (Courtesy)

“President Trump is a huge friend of the State of Israel,” Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett said before going on to thank him for the same list of moves highlighted by Netanyahu.

Bennett’s No. 2 in the national religious, opposition party, Ayelet Shaked, even tweeted at the US president.

“We deeply appreciate all that he has done for (Israel) in the diplomatic, security & legal arenas- & so much more,” she wrote. “We can debate when & how Israel should apply sovereignty. But Trump’s friendship & support is beyond any doubt.”

Even fellow settler leaders sought to distance themselves from the Yesha chairman, issuing statements of their own praising the US president.

The only right-wing lawmaker to come to Elhayani’s defense was Itamar Ben Gvir, whose extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party failed to cross the electoral threshold in the past two elections.

Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party holds a press conference in Jerusalem on February 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Friends, don’t interfere in one another’s lives. They don’t tear up one’s country to establish a terror state on the ancestral heartland. And if they don’t like this fact, the Americans [are welcome] to take [back] their Jerusalem embassy,” he wrote.

Separately Wednesday, another prominent settler leader told The Times of Israel that he and his colleagues are prepared to “blow up” Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

During the Tuesday meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, the settler leaders asked to see the map but were politely told that wouldn’t be possible as it’s still in the early stages of formation, three officials who were at the meeting confirmed.

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 long weeks and possibly even several 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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