Not taking PM at his word, settler leader intensifies West Bank roads campaign

Yossi Dagan assembles group of right-wing MKs who will refuse to vote with coalition until NIS 800m budget pledged by Netanyahu is passed

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

Members of the Jewish Home party sit at a protest tent with Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan (3rd from R) outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on October 25, 2017. (Courtesy: Samaria Regional Council)
Members of the Jewish Home party sit at a protest tent with Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan (3rd from R) outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on October 25, 2017. (Courtesy: Samaria Regional Council)

Samaria Regional Council Chairman Yossi Dagan has assembled a group of right-wing lawmakers who will refuse to vote with the coalition until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brings to a cabinet vote the earmarking of a budget for West Bank roads and infrastructure development, a settler official confirmed to The Times of Israel Wednesday.

During a meeting earlier in the day with Avi Roeh, chairman of the Yesha Council settlement umbrella group, Netanyahu promised that NIS 800 million ($228 million) would be invested in infrastructure projects beginning with the start of the 2018 fiscal year.

While Yesha Council officials praised the announcement, Dagan was not sold and began reaching out to lawmakers to elevate the pressure on the prime minister, highlighting a growing rift between settler leaders over the correct approach to Netanyahu’s recent pledges.

The group of MKs is believed to include lawmakers who visited Dagan’s protest tent outside the Prime Minister’s Residence, which he erected Tuesday along with members of families that lost relatives in terror attacks on West Bank roads. They are demanding that the state pave more roads that bypass Palestinian population centers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r) with settler leader Yossi Dagan at event commemorating 50 years of settlement in the West Bank, August 28, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Culture Minister Miri Regev, Welfare Minister Haim Katz, Economy Minister Eli Cohen and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan — all members of the Likud party — visited the protest tent during the day.

A delegation of five lawmakers from the Jewish Home party stopped by later in the evening, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the party, sent a statement of support to Dagan earlier in the day.

Likud MK Oren Hazan is also among the group of rebellious right-wing lawmakers, Channel 2 news reported.

The settler official told The Times of Israel that Dagan — with the help of the rogue MKs — is sending a clear ultimatum to Netanyahu: either pass a cabinet resolution earmarking the promised NIS 800 million for West Bank infrastructure, or members of your camp will not vote with the coalition.

In a letter updating settler leaders on his meeting with the prime minister, Roeh spoke positively of the plan Netanyahu had promised. “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 Shilo Adler in a recorded statement following the meeting.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan, left, 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 the rift within the Yesha Council. Speaking from the protest tent, 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.

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

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 for the first time an exact figure for the project’s budget.

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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