Settler leaders say Netanyahu still pushing for annexation before election

Settler leaders say Netanyahu still pushing for annexation before election

But council heads acknowledge no commitment on issue from prime minister, who recently indicated he will reluctantly delay sovereignty move

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told settler leaders he is still seeking to annex parts of the West Bank before elections early next month, despite US opposition to the move, participants in the meeting said Thursday.

The head of an umbrella group of settler mayors and council heads said the sides had a productive meeting, but they were unable to pin down the premier on a timeline.

“We listened to what [Netanyahu] had to say and expressed our support for him. The heads of municipalities [in the West Bank] asked the prime minister to make all efforts to apply Israeli sovereignty [in the West Bank] before the elections,” said David Elhayani, who chairs the Yesha Council umbrella organization of settler leaders, in a statement following the Wednesday night meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Netanyahu vowed to swiftly start annexing parts of the West Bank moments after the White House unveiled its peace proposal late last month. Though US Ambassador David Friedman initially backed the move, the Trump administration later clarified it expected Netanyahu to wait at least until after the national vote on March 2.

According to several settler leaders who spoke to The Times of Israel after their meeting with the premier, Netanyahu assured them that he was still working on some degree of annexation before the elections.

“I trust the prime minister is doing everything he can and recognize that there are multiple issues that he needs to take into consideration,” said Eliyahu Shaviro, the mayor of the northern West Bank city of Ariel.

Meanwhile, Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman dismissed reports that settler leaders left the PMO disappointed, but admitted that the possibility of immediate annexation appeared less likely at the moment.

“At the end of the day I support enacting sovereignty [in the West Bank] with the backing of the US, but that does not mean the move is contingent on their go ahead,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Yesha Council erected what it has called a “tent of strengthening and support” outside the PMO, where members called on the premier to fulfill his annexation vow.

Settler leaders object to parts of the plan that allow for the creation of a Palestinian state on some 70 percent of the West Bank, but say they expect Netanyahu to keep his promise of annexing settlements and the Jordan Valley.

Settler leaders sit at their tent of strengthening and support outside the PMO in Jerusalem on February 4, 2020. (Gush Etzion Regional Council)

Though Netanyahu initially told reporters he would push ahead with annexation as early as February 2, he has refrained from speaking about a timeline since White House senior adviser Jared Kushner said publicly he expected Israel to wait.

During a Tuesday campaign event in Beit Shemesh, the prime minister urged attendees to help him get elected, saying that a victory would allow his Likud party to gain approval for the Trump peace plan.

The remarks appeared to be an acknowledgement that annexation would not be on the table before the national vote.

Settler leaders meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, at the Blair House in Washington on January 27, 2020. (Courtesy)

Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, who in recent weeks has come out in support of annexation, cautioned settler leaders and their backers against trying to push the move as fast as possible. “Recklessness on this issue is not wise. We need to allow Netanyahu to coordinate with the Americans,” he told Army Radio Thursday.

Fellow cabinet member and Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich dismissed Deri’s remarks, asserting that the move must be made immediately. “We’re lucky Aryeh Deri wasn’t a cabinet member when [Israel’s founder David] Ben-Gurion had to decide whether to declare the establishment of Israel,” Smotrich said.

The Yesha Council initially rejected the plan over its vision of a Palestinian state on 70% of the West Bank, and later refused to take a position, leading to a rift within its ranks.

Earlier this week, Shaviro announced that he was pulling his membership from the Yesha Council over the umbrella body’s lack of support for the peace proposal and claimed that there were several other members who felt the same way, including Ma’ale Adumim mayor Benny Kashriel, Efrat Local Council chairman Oded Revivi and Oranit Local Council chairman Nir Bartal.

The Palestinians have denounced the plan as one-sided in Israel’s favor.

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