Criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the right continued to grow Friday over his agreement to suspend plans to annex West Bank land as part of a peace deal with the United Arab Emirates, with two leading right-wing politicians suggesting it could be time for Netanyahu to leave the stage.
David Elhayani, chairman of the Yesha umbrella council of settlement mayors, told Kan Bet radio: “The prime minister has lost it. He misled us for a long time.”
He said if Netanyahu had truly given up on the plan to apply Israeli sovereignty to settlements, “Netanyahu needs to be replaced.”
Meanwhile MK Bezalel Smotrich of the national religious Yamina party said it was time for the right to “present an alternative leadership to that of Netanyahu.”
Netanyahu insisted Thursday that his plan to apply Israeli sovereignty to some 30 percent of the West Bank, covering the settlements and the Jordan Valley, had been “temporarily halted” at the request of US President Donald Trump, but that he remained “committed” to implementing it in full coordination with the US.
Sensing the rising discontent among their settler base, many Likud ministers on Thursday and Friday said it was imperative not to give up on annexation.
On Friday, Settlement Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Army Radio Israel had not given up on its sovereignty bid, saying “Of course it will take place” and repeating Netanyahu’s assertion that the shelving of the plan was only temporary.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said annexation “is no less important to the people of Israel” than the accord with the UAE. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Kan Bet he understood the disappointment felt by some, but argued annexation “is not off the table” and asserted the agreement with Abu Dhabi “will serve Israel for generations.”
Smotrich, who until recently was transportation minister under Netanyahu, acknowledged in a Facebook post that the prime minister is “a magician” — a moniker many of the premier’s supporters, as well as political analysts, have attached to him over the years. But, he added, the main talent of magicians is “deception,” and Netanyahu had repeatedly hoodwinked the country’s right wing.
“Netanyahu has deceived right-wing voters for years with great success. He is the right’s strongest brand, even though he is in actual fact light-years away from enacting a right-wing ideology, in almost every area,” Smotrich argued.
Walking back promises he had previously made on annexing West Bank territory, the prime minister had instead agreed to normalize relations that Smotrch noted had already been close for years, while bringing Palestinian statehood and the two-state solution back to the table.
“This is the price that has been demanded of us, and White House and UAE spokespeople were entirely clear on this yesterday,” he said. Smotrich claimed that Netanyahu had caused even greater damage by agreeing, through annexation talks, to delineate the contours of a future Palestinian state under the US peace deal, and had thus done what even left-wing prime ministers had refused for years to do.
To combat the dangers of a Palestinian state, the right, Smotrich argued, must “immediately present an alternative leadership to that of Netanyahu.
“So long as the alternative to Netanyahu is a left-wing government, the right continues to be Netanyahu’s hostage… presenting a right-wing alternative to Netanyahu will solve the right’s dependence on Netanyahu and allow it to open its eyes objectively and stop just before the abyss,” he stated.
Friday saw some sporadic right-wing protests against Netanyahu in several intersections, though an activist, Reuven Gafni, told the Ynet news site these were planned before Thursday’s announcement of the deal with Abu Dhabi.
Gafni said the demonstrators were calling out against the dysfunction of the current government and the threat of a new election due to ongoing crises between the coalition’s parties.
Former MK Aryeh Eldad, who was one of the founders of what eventually became far-right party Otzma Yehudit, said Netanyahu “has sold out the Land of Israel… for ‘peace’ with the UAE, as if there were ever war between us.”
Most of Israel’s political leadership welcomed Thursday’s historic announcement, which was first made public by the White House. It said the leaders of the US, Israel and the UAE “spoke today and agreed to the full normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.”
Israeli and UAE delegations will meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security and the establishment of reciprocal embassies, it said.
According to the joint statement from Israel, the UAE and the US, Israel had agreed to suspend West Bank annexation plans in exchange for the normalization of ties.
The hard-right and settler leadership blasted that requirement.
Yamina chief MK Naftali Bennett, who heads Yamina, opened his statement by welcoming the announcement, but went on to claim that Netanyahu had “missed a once-in-a-century opportunity” to annex large parts of the West Bank, as he had promised repeatedly to do throughout the past three election campaigns.
“It is tragic that Netanyahu did not grasp the moment, nor did he muster the courage to apply sovereignty to even an inch of the Land of Israel,” Bennett added.
Smotrich castigated Netanyahu for “the revival of the two-state discourse,” and dismissed the announcement as marginal, given that Israel had never been at war with the UAE.
Netanyahu’s chief rival in Likud, MK Gideon Sa’ar, said he welcomed the agreement, but added that “I will be emotional when we are able to apply Israeli law [over settlements].”
Two Likud ministers also indicated discontent. Miri Regev, who visited Abu Dhabi in 2018, said the agreement must not come at the expense of extending sovereignty. And Edelstein noted, “We promised Likud voters sovereignty, and we must stand by that.”
Settler leaders were much more fiery in their criticism, with Elhayani saying Netanyahu had “betrayed” all Israelis living beyond the Green Line.
“Netanyahu has repeatedly promised the application of Israeli sovereignty in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley. We had face-to-face meetings. He assured us that he was working on it, that this is the main political issue on which he was running in the election,” said Elhayani.
“He led us astray. He led [the nearly] half a million residents of the area and hundreds of thousands of voters astray,” he added.
The mayor of the Beit El settlement Shai Alon accused Netanyahu of selling out his movement.
“They pulled a fast one on the settlers. Our future is in Judea and Samaria and in courageous decisions which our leaders will make. Not agreements that we sign today and are not worth the paper they are written on tomorrow.”
Efrat mayor Oded Revivi was the lone prominent voice beyond the Green Line who spoke in favor of the deal, calling the suspension of annexation a “proper price” for normalizing ties, while predicting a change in how settlements are perceived.
Apparently recognizing the damage the announcement might cause to his base, Netanyahu told reporters that he had not given up on his annexation plans. Rather, he simply had put them on temporary hold at the request of the Trump administration in order to see the UAE agreement through.
The issue of applying sovereignty in Judea and Samaria “remains on the table,” he said. “I’m the one who put it on the table…”
“Just as I brought peace, I will bring sovereignty [to the West Bank],” he vowed, adding “I did not take sovereignty off the table.” He went on: “I am committed to sovereignty… Nobody ever believes my promises” but “I always prove them wrong.”
The joint statement issued issued by the White House states that “Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace and focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world. The United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates are confident that additional diplomatic breakthroughs with other nations are possible, and will work together to achieve this goal.”
Trump contradicted Netanyahu Thursday night, saying that annexation was “more than just off the table” and that Israel had agreed to not carry it out. But Trump then confusingly added that while that was the situation “right now,” he couldn’t talk about annexation “some time in the future.”
Settler leaders did not appear to buy the assertion that the shelving would only be temporary. “‘Postponement for a few months.’ Everyone understands that this is a cancellation,” said Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan.
“There is a limit to [Netanyahu’s] cynicism and there is a limit to how much one can deceive the public,” Dagan added.