Netanyahu promises settlers NIS 800 million for West Bank roads

Mixed reactions to pledge among settler leaders represent a growing rift between those who are willing to take PM at his word and those who aren’t

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a meeting Wednesday with settler leaders, promised to invest NIS 800 million ($228 million) in West Bank roads and infrastructure development.

Netanyahu and his chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, told the chairman of the settlement umbrella group Yesha Council, Avi Roeh, that plan would go into effect at the start of the 2018 fiscal year.

In a letter updating settler leaders on his meeting with the prime minister, Roeh spoke positively of the plan. “This is a significant message being sent to all the populations in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley after a long period of intensive work with various government ministries,” he wrote, referring to areas of the West Bank by their biblical names.

“This is a festive message marking the start of the 50th year of settlement (in the West Bank),” said Yesha Council director general Shilo Adler in a recorded statement following the meeting.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan and Beit Arye Local Council chairman Avi Naim point to a West Bank bypass road that remains unfinished, years after its construction began. (Courtesy: Roy Hadi)

But reactions from other settler leaders to the pledge demonstrated a rift within the Yesha Council. Speaking from a protest tent outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan refused to take Netanyahu at his word. “We are fed up with promises and spin,” he said.

He vowed to continue his protest at Balfour Street, along with members of families that lost relatives in terror attacks on West Bank roads, until all of the money was transferred. “Our residents’ blood will not be abandoned,” he said.

Yesha Council spokesman Yigal Dilmoni said that Dagan had every right to continue his protest, but that the Samaria Regional Council chairman did not speak for the umbrella settlement group.

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

“While we’re still waiting for the money to go through, we are very satisfied,” Dilmoni insisted. “It’s important to know when to close up shop upon obtaining results.” He emphasized that his organization is run in a democratic fashion and that he respected Dagan’s tactics. “But we acted in a different manner, which seemed to work,” he said.

An official in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel that it was unclear where the NIS 800 million budget would be taken from.

Dagan was joined by Beit Arye local council chairman Avi Naim, who also released a statement saying he was not yet convinced Netanyahu would transfer the funds. However, Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman and Har Hebron Regional Council chairman Yochai Damari commended the prime minister.

Dagan launched the tent protest Tuesday with representatives from several bereaved families demanding that Netanyahu immediately allocate funds for bypass roads and other security improvements for residents of the West Bank.

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

“Mr. Prime Minister, you think that sourpusses exist only on the left. I regret to inform you that there are another half a million sourpusses in Judea and Samaria as well,” said Dagan in a reference to Netanyahu’s Monday speech opening the Knesset’s winter session in which he labeled his opponents “sourpusses” (literally, “pickles”) for downplaying the country’s many successes.

“You know, we worked very hard to put you in power and for there to be a right-wing government. The entire settlement movement was mobilized for this purpose. And we are sitting here today very disappointed,” Naim added.

Last week Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announced a plan to roll out a security package for West Bank settlers next month worth NIS 3.3 billion ($939 million). The package is expected to address many of the demands raised by the settlers and bereaved families protesting outside the Prime Minister’s Residence. However, it will only be implemented in 2019.

Liberman emphasized that such infrastructure improvements take time. Speaking to reporters Thursday at the construction grounds of the new Amichai settlement for Amona evacuees, the defense minister insisted his office was working to gather the money for the West Bank security project.

“These things don’t happen overnight, but this security package is the first all-inclusive one that will address a broad range of needs for residents in Judea and Samaria,” he said.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center right, visits construction of the new Amichai settlement in the West Bank on October 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A Defense Ministry official said that it was unclear how Netanyahu’s pledge would impact Liberman’s plans for the security package. However, it appeared that the money promised by the prime minister will specifically be earmarked for the paving of new West Bank roads, while Liberman’s plan is devoted to cameras, fences and other security improvements for residents over the Green Line.

While Netanyahu had made a similar pledge to pave additional bypass roads for West Bank settlers earlier this month, Wednesday’s assurance included an exact figure which would be allocated for the project.

The bypass roads create separate routes for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Settlers say the routes are integral for their safety, citing terror attacks that have taken place on roads that run through Palestinian villages. They also argue that they benefit all residents of the West Bank — Jewish and Palestinian alike — by reducing congestion.

But opponents of the pathways call them discriminatory and argue that they encourage the establishment of illegal outposts, and are sometimes paved on private Palestinian land.

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