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InterviewElhayani one of few West Bank mayors to back new government

Settler leader: Bennett, Sa’ar have promised there will be no settlement freeze

Yesha chairman tells ToI that Yamina, New Hope lawmakers assured him construction in settlements will continue as usual, even if annexation is off the table in a unity government

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

Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani at a protest tent outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani at a protest tent outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Right-wing lawmakers in the prospective unity government have promised settler leaders that there will not be a freeze in construction beyond the Green Line, a West Bank mayor said on Thursday.

“If there will be a freeze, there won’t be a government,” was the message conveyed by senior lawmakers in the Yamina and New Hope parties, said David Elhayani, who heads the Jordan Valley Regional Council and the Yesha umbrella council of settlement mayors.

In a phone interview with The Times of Israel, Elhayani explained his decision to support the government that Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid are seeking to form — a position that sets him apart almost entirely from other settler leaders who either ardently oppose the nascent coalition, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims will be unable to defend the interests of the settlement movement, or have been holding their tongues on the matter.

“I, as opposed to others, do not think that this government will harm the settlement movement,” Elhayani said. “[New Hope chairman] Gideon Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett and [Yisrael Beytenu chairman] Avigdor Liberman are very committed to the right-wing.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on July 29, 2013. Naftali Bennett (left) and Gideon Sa’ar are seated in the foreground. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The right-wing party heads in the coalition have reached agreements with Lapid to ensure that in addition to no construction freeze, the Defense Ministry body that authorizes settlement construction will continue to meet on a quarterly basis — “that means that construction in Judea and Samaria will continue,” Elhayani said.

In the meantime though, that panel known as the Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee has not convened in roughly five months. When settler leaders raised the issue with Defense Minister Benny Gantz earlier this week, they did not receive a clear answer, Elhayani said.

Elhayani said that Gantz, who is poised to continue as defense minister in the new government, appeared to suggest that he would make the decisions on settlement construction and not Bennett or Sa’ar. Other settler leaders expressed fear that Gantz could hold up construction.

“Only I will decide on settlement construction and negotiate with the Americans on issues pertaining to Judea and Samaria (West Bank),” Elhayani quoted Gantz as having said. Gantz, whose ministry oversees the High Planning Subcommittee was in Washington on Thursday for meetings with US officials where the issue of settlement construction was likely raised.

While an agreement struck with the Trump administration unofficially codified that the Defense Ministry body would meet four times a year to approve construction plans, there have periodically been gaps lasting longer than three months between sessions during diplomatically sensitive periods, such as the normalization agreements Israel struck with several Arab countries last year. US President Joe Biden’s entry into the White House appears to be another one of those sensitive moments where Israel has been wary to test its ties with the US by approving new construction in the West Bank, which the White House says would make a two-state solution harder to achieve.

US President Joe Biden salutes before delivering an address at the 153rd National Memorial Day Observance at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in Arlington, Virginia on May 31, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

Within the Yesha leadership, there are others who have been far more critical of Gantz’s conduct and argue that it is a sign of things to come if the Bennett-Lapid government is sworn in.

In a Wednesday interview with the Arutz Sheva news site, Yesha Council CEO Yigal Dilmoni said Gantz was responsible for the outgoing government’s failure to pass legislation that would have legalized dozens of West Bank outposts.

“If this is what’s going to happen in the future then it will be a dangerous government for the settlement movement, and it would be better if it’s not formed,” said Dilmoni, who is not a West Bank mayor but a full-time staffer for Yesha.

“We ask that this be terminated once and for all and immediately so. Benny Gantz must not be given the keys to construction in Judea and Samaria,” he added.

Elhayani recognized that Gantz has not provided answers as to what settlement policy will look like in the next government, but the Yesha chairman highlighted the promises received by the right-wing members of the coalition.

Yigal Dilmoni, CEO of the Yesha Council seen at the protest tent in support of annexation, outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, February 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While he offered the non-committal “time will tell” response when asked whether the new government would be a positive development for the settlement movement, Elhayani argued that successive governments led by Netanyahu for over a decade, which were often deemed right-wing, took steps that were against the settlement movement.

The Yesha chairman pointed to Netanyahu’s 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University in which he expressed his support for the two-state solution, the 10-month settlement construction freeze he agreed to during the Obama administration, the eight-month period during the Trump administration when the High Planning Subcommittee did not convene, the clearing of three Israeli outposts in the West Bank, the failure to demolish the Bedouin hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar and the Trump peace plan backed by Netanyahu, which Elhayani said envisions a “Palestinian terror state in the heart of the land of Israel.”

In a shot at Netanyahu, Elhayani agreed that a unity government that talks less, but still creates facts on the ground is preferred over a right-wing government, which talks more and does less.

The Yesha chairman acknowledged that annexation of Israeli settlements had been taken off the table — “because of Netanyahu” — but said the new government would still build and develop West Bank settlements. “And that’s not bad either,” he said.

“Both Bennett and Sa’ar said that what was is what will be,” Elhayani explained. “They will safeguard the interests of the settlement movement, both at the budgetary level and at the diplomatic level.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L), Yamina leader Naftali Bennett (C) and Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas sign a coalition agreement on June 2, 2021 (Courtesy of Ra’am)

Elhayani was one of the few Israeli mayors in the West Bank who did not support the Likud party, rallying instead behind Sa’ar’s New Hope ahead of the March 23 election and arguing that Netanyahu could no longer be trusted to safeguard the settlements.

He dismissed the assertion made by Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich that Bennett’s entry into a unity government that includes left-wing parties is the beginning of a political transformation akin to the ones undergone by former prime minister Ariel Sharon and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

Sharon evacuated the Gaza Strip, while Livni moved from the Likud to the left, running in a united slate with the Labor party.

“I don’t think that’s the case,” Elhayani said. “You can see it in the party he’s formed and in the way they’ve really struggled to come to the decision to join this government.”

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