Yamina calls it spin; Peace Now brands it delusional

Settler leaders lionize Netanyahu for ‘historic’ Jordan Valley annexation pledge

Local authority heads, many of whom hail from PM’s Likud party, rejoice over move, but others express skepticism, call for government to go further

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event marking the 50th anniversary of settlements in the Jordan Valley, in Patzael, on October 19, 2017. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event marking the 50th anniversary of settlements in the Jordan Valley, in Patzael, on October 19, 2017. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Settler leaders lined up on Tuesday to thank and congratulate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he vowed to annex the Jordan Valley if reelected next week, but some on the right urged the prime minister to go further or dismissed the promise as electoral spin.

In a campaign speech billed by his Likud party as a “dramatic announcement,” Netanyahu said he would immediately move to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley if voters put him back in office. He also repeated his vow from before elections in April to extend sovereignty to West Bank settlements, but said he would do this with “maximum coordination” with the United States.

Meanwhile, the Yesha settlement umbrella council lauded Netanyahu’s announcement, calling it “a historic event” and “unprecedented news for the State of Israel.”

“Sovereignty is the vision of the settlement movement and the path of the future for deepening our presence in the region. The Yesha Council congratulates the prime minister on the historic declaration, which places settlement as an integral part of the State of Israel.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points at a map of the Jordan Valley as he gives a statement, promising to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area, in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Noting that a US peace plan for the region would be rolled in shortly after the September 17 vote, Netanyahu claimed that Israel had an unprecedented opportunity to quickly extend sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and later to all West Bank settlements.

Around 15,000 settlers live in some 30 communities included in the Jordan Valley area over which Netanyahu said he would promptly apply sovereignty if re-elected, according to a map he presented. The area would encircle the Palestinian city of Jericho and the town Al-Auja, as well as six more Palestinian communities, which would essentially be cut off from the rest of the West Bank, where Palestinians seek a state of their own. Netanyahu said his move would not involve annexing any Palestinians.

Palestinian official reacted with fury to the announcement and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned that annexation would lead to the nullification of previous agreements between Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Even before Netanyahu made his announcement, Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhayani released a statement feting the premier “for giving us nothing short of a historic moment.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen with Jordan Valley Regional Council David Elhayani at an event commemorating 50 years of settlement in the Jordan Valley on October 19, 2017. (Courtesy)

Elhayani’s statement, which had been prepared for the eventuality that Netanyahu would announce he was already extending sovereignty, was apparently sent out by a PR company ahead of time by mistake. After briefly retracting the statement, the PR company sent out the exact same text on Elhayani’s behalf after Netanyahu completed his speech.

“In my 11 years in office, which have been saturated with concern for the future of the Jordan Valley, I admit that this moment is one of the most important and exciting ones I’ve experienced as mayor,” Elhayani said in the statement.

Similar statements were issued by the heads of the Gush Etzion, Binyamin, Har Hebron and Megilot regional councils as well as the Efrat and Beit El local council chairmen — several of whom had expressed greater skepticism when Netanyahu vowed to annex West Bank settlements on the eve of the last election and when he twice vowed to do so in the weeks leading up to the September 17 vote.

The lone settler leader who raised concern with Netanyahu’s announcement was Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan — a Likud member himself, like most settler leaders, but also one who has publicly grilled the premier on more than several occasions for not doing enough on behalf of settlers.

“Alongside the praise that must be given to the prime minister for his positive statement… I must say with regret that it is still cause for great concern, particularly due to its timing… It raises considerable concern regarding the possibility of continued Jewish foothold in more than 90 percent of Judea and Samara,” Dagan said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) poses with settler leaders in Jerusalem, December 26, 2018. (Haim Zach/GPO)

“If he really wanted to finally bury his [2009] Bar Ilan speech [in which Netanyahu expressed support for a two-state solution] and the plans of Barack Hussein Obama for a Jewish retreat from Judea and Samaria [West Bank] and the establishment of a terror state in the heart of the Land of Israel, a statement that talks about less than 10% of the land and only in the first stage [is not enough].”

The outspoken settler leader called on Netanyahu to “correct” his statement and announce plans to annex all of Area C — the 60% of the West Bank where all Israeli settlements are located.

Other than Dagan, the only settler leaders willing to criticize Netanyahu publicly were former ones. Yesha Council founder Yisrael Harel called Netanyahu’s announcement a “bold-faced lie” and said he did not believe the prime minister would stand by his words.

Yossi Dagan speaks during a protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, in support of the Jewish youth suspects in a major security probe whose details are under gag order, January 5, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Moreover, he blasted the statements of praise from settler leaders as an “embarrassment,” saying Netanyahu had made countless similar promises to them in the past which he did not end up keeping.

“I, too, believed in them then, but there is no longer an excuse to continue doing so now,” Harel said.

A chairman of a settlement’s secretariat who spoke to The Times of Israel on the condition of anonymity said that while he was not entirely convinced by the prime minister’s pledge, it wasn’t in his interest to call Netanyahu out publicly just days before the elections.

“A lot of us [settler leaders] are members of the Likud. While we are of course free to criticize the party leader and many of us have done so in the past, we have to exercise caution during these next few days,” he said.

Others more free to shoot from the hip included members of political parties running against Netanyahu, even those to the right of Likud.

The Jordan Valley. (photo credit: CC BY Trocaire, Flickr)

The Yamina party blasted Tuesday’s announcement as “spin.”

“Netanyahu explained this evening why voters must vote Yamina and not Likud,” the party said in a statement, claiming that the “Bibi-Trump plan, will only allow for sovereignty to be applied over the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, leaving out the surrounding areas.”

“And regarding the Jordan Valley, we call on Netanyahu to introduce a cabinet decision this evening as was done when sovereignty was applied over Jerusalem. There is no need for legislation. We will stand behind him immediately and vote in favor. Otherwise, the entire nation of Israel will know that this was a cheap political spin meant to snarf up votes and nothing more,” Yamina, led by former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, declared.

Among those who criticized Netanyahu from the left was the Peace Now settlement watchdog, which called the Jordan Valley annexation plan “delusional” and “further evidence of the limitless cynicism of a prime minister buried neck deep in serious corruption cases.”

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