Settler leaders call on PM to oppose Trump plan, even at the cost of annexation

Umbrella group of West Bank mayors says it will not agree to plan that allows for establishment of Palestinian state, but one member says statement was issued without his knowledge

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

(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)
(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)

The Yesha Council umbrella group of settler leaders announced on Tuesday that it would oppose US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, hours before the White House was slated to unveil its details.

“We are very troubled,” said Yesha Council leader and Jordan Valley Regional Council Chairman David Elhayani in a statement after meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu along with someone he referred to as a senior US official.

“We cannot accept a plan that would include the establishment of a Palestinian state, which would pose a threat to the State of Israel,” he said.

“We will also not allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state, even if that means giving up on enacting sovereignty in Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley [for now],” Elhayani added, acknowledging that the White House peace plan would allow for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) meets with settler leaders in his office on February 25, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/File)

“We call on the prime minister and members of Knesset not to accept a comprehensive agreement within which a Palestinian state can be established in any form,” he concluded.

The Yesha Council, which is made up of 24 mayors of Israeli municipalities in the West Bank, had held off on making an official statement until Tuesday, with senior members saying they wanted to wait for the plan to be presented before judging it.

Evidently though, they received enough information from Netanyahu and US officials to come out against it hours before the 12 p.m. (EST) unveiling.

However, the mayor of the Ariel city-settlement in the northern West Bank issued a statement of his own blasting the Yesha Council position, saying it was released before all members of the umbrella group were consulted.

Breaking with his West Bank mayoral colleagues, Shaviro called on Netanyahu to accept the plan, saying he could live with a demilitarized Palestinian state on 70% of the West Bank, which has widely been reported to be what the Trump plan will offer.

Moreover, he asserted that the Palestinian Authority will reject the proposal as Ramallah has long vowed to do and that Jerusalem accepting it now would allow Israel to move forward with plans to immediately annex parts of the West Bank.

“I and other heads of municpalities in Judea and Samaria [West Bank] believe that this was an irresponsible statement [issued by Yesha],” Shaviro said in a statement.

Speaking to The Times of Israel, the Ariel mayor rejected the claims of other settler leaders, who argued that agreeing to the plan would mean a principal acceptance of a Palestinian state, allowing it to become the basis for all future negotiations. “It’s been the starting point in talks for decades,” he pointed out.

The prime minister had sought to warm the settler leaders to the idea of a Palestinian state that would be heavily curbed, several of the leaders who were present at a sit-down with Netanyahu in Washington told The Times of Israel earlier Tuesday.

“He tried to sell us on the idea that it wouldn’t really be a Palestinian state,” said  Elhayani.

Countless media reports in recent days have purported to reveal details of the deal which is widely believed to be the most generous offer — from Israel’s standpoint — that any American administration has ever drafted. A settler leader who spoke to The Times of Israel last week said the so-called Deal of the Century would endorse Israeli sovereignty over all West Bank settlements.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

However, Netanyahu told settler leaders on Monday evening that it would likely also include the establishment of a Palestinian state in roughly 70 percent of the West Bank, but that such an entity would be demilitarized, have no control over its borders and would be largely non-contiguous.

Elhayani did not buy the premier’s argument. “Who are we to tell a sovereign entity not to have an army or not to have an airport?” he asked rhetorically.

Netanyahu had invited Elhayani, along with Efrat Local Council Chairman Oded Revivi, Binyamin Regional Council Chairman Yisrael Gantz and Gush Etzion Regional Council Chairman Shlomo Ne’eman, to join him in Washington to receive updates in real time regarding the contents of the White House discussions on the peace deal.

The Jordan Valley mayor spoke to The Times of Israel at 3 a.m. local time, saying he was unable to sleep because he was worried about the plan, which he deemed “horrible for settlements.”

Elhayani speculated that Jordan would force the Palestinian Authority to accept the plan.

“There’s a lot of money being offered here,” he said.

The Jordan Valley outpost of Mevo’ot Yeriho in 2017. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Ne’eman expressed similar anxieties. He recognized that the state being offered to the Palestinians would come with a significant deal of caveats, but still called the proposal “extremely risky.”

Moreover, he argued that it would be better to hold off on annexing parts of the West Bank and oppose the Trump plan if accepting it would mean agreeing to a Palestinian state.

“That is something you can never walk back, whereas you can always enact sovereignty over settlements a year or two from now,” Ne’eman told The Times of Israel.

“We did not return from 2,000 years of exile to agree to a Palestinian state. Not at any price are we willing to [win] sovereignty over settlement,” he concluded.

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