Settler leaders call on PM to ‘put US in its place,’ swiftly annex W. Bank land

Yesha officials express outrage after American envoy Friedman puts brakes on any immediate sovereignty bid; urge Netanyahu to keep his promises on the matter

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

Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan speaks during a demonstration outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, December 13, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan speaks during a demonstration outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, December 13, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Settler leaders reacted in fury to US Ambassador David Friedman’s Sunday clarification that the White House would not support immediate and uncoordinated annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel, with one prominent West Bank mayor calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ignore the warnings from Washington and put the Trump administration “in its place.”

“The United States cannot prevent Israel from doing anything,” said Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhayani, who serves as the chairman of the Yesha Council umbrella group of settlements.

Elhayani in a statement called on the prime minister “to fulfill his commitment to the residents of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley to apply sovereignty before the elections, and to do this as soon as possible.”

“Judea and Samaria” is the biblical term for the West Bank.

(From L-R) Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani in front of a Gush Etzion lookout point in the West Bank on November 19, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan griped that “the period of the High Commissioner is over,” referring to the British authority that ruled over Palestine before Israel was established.

“Sometimes even dear friends need to be put in their place and told that… we are a sovereign country and sovereignty will be extended to Judea and Samaria as the public in the State of Israel expects,” he said.

Beit El Local Council chairman Shai Alon said “the United States should respect us as a state and not determine when Israel will assert sovereignty over Judea and Samaria.”

Earlier Sunday, Friedman warned the Israeli government against applying its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank before the March 2 election, citing US President Donald Trump’s mention of a bilateral committee that must conclude its mapping work before Jerusalem would be allowed to go ahead with its planned annexation.

“I am not suggesting that the government of Israel should not do whatever it wants to do. Israel is a sovereign state. But people should know that if the president’s position is simply ignored then we’re not going to be in a position to go forward,” he said at a briefing at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a hawkish think tank.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman addressing a briefing hosted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, February 9, 2020. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Referring to the process of mapping West Bank land in preparation for annexation, Friedman said, “It’s not unduly difficult, but it’s also not simple, because there are a lot of judgment calls.

“We don’t want to do this piecemeal,” he went on, adding that it would be “a mistake” to have Israel apply sovereignty over different areas of the West Bank incrementally, forcing the US to recognize numerous annexations.

Friedman also appeared to acknowledge publicly for the first time that Jerusalem received contradictory messages from the US administration regarding when exactly Israel would be allowed to move forward with annexation.

Mere moments after the peace deal’s unveiling on January 28, Netanyahu told reporters that his cabinet would vote in favor of annexation the very next week. Friedman at the time appeared to back that statement, telling reporters that “Israel does not have to wait at all” when asked whether there was a “waiting period” that would have to elapse before the country could extend sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and all of its settlements.

A short while later, the president’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, the peace plan’s chief author, contradicted Friedman, making plain in a series of interviews that the White House expected Israel not to annex any areas before the work of the bilateral committee is completed.

The administration does not think that the committee’s work could be completed by March 2, Friedman said on Sunday. The committee has six members — three Israelis and three Americans — and Friedman is the only member of the US delegation living in Israel, so its work will have to include several trips to the region by other members, the envoy added.

Netanyahu has hinted at his intention to abide by the US request to coordinate annexation measures, telling supporters last week that the election represented a referendum on the issue and that he needed to win in March in order to carry out the measure. But while the premier has avoided specifically saying that enacting sovereignty in the West Bank will have to wait, fellow Likud minister Yuval Steinitz told the Kan public broadcaster explicitly on Sunday that the effort will only be realized after March 2.

“This will come after the elections. The historic achievement of Netanyahu is that we are doing this with the blessing of the United States,” Steinitz said.

Just about all settler leaders who reacted to Friedman’s remarks on Sunday came out against the envoy, but at least one West Bank mayor appeared to provide backing for the US position.

Efrat Local Council chairman Oded Revivi called Friedman’s clarification a “wake-up call for all of us,” and urged fellow settler leaders to cooperate with the government on the issue.

Revivi said it was “wrong” for Israel to take unilateral action at this time, adding that “Ambassador Friedman, in the name of the US administration, is presenting a rare opportunity to sit down with the Americans and hold discussions through an elected government to determine Israel’s future borders.”

Over the past week, Revivi has been joined by Ariel mayor Eli Shaviro, who has spoken out in support of the plan and even pulled his membership from the Yesha Council over the umbrella group’s opposition to most of the proposal — except for annexation.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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