Contenders set on unifying their fractured camp

Settler leadership race comes as movement girds for possible tougher times ahead

Candidates vying to chair Yesha Council of West Bank mayors undeterred by likelihood of less gushing support from Jerusalem and potential changing of friendly guard in Washington

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Yesha Council leaders at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Yesha Council leaders at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Four heads of Israeli municipalities in the West Bank have tossed their hats into Monday’s settler leadership race as the influential movement beyond the Green Line prepares for a new political era, which may require cooperating with a government in Jerusalem slightly less friendly to their cause.

The chairman of the Yesha settlement umbrella council, Hananel Dorani, has decided that he will not seek re-election after this month’s end of his single two-year term, during which he had the luxury of working with the most right-wing government in decades along with a friendly White House that acted in many ways to normalize Israeli presence beyond the Green Line.

Four mayors will vie for the opportunity to lead the settlement movement into an era in which the hugs from Jerusalem and Washington may not be as tight. The winner will be the one with a plurality of support from the 24 West Bank municipal chairmen who make up the Yesha Council along with settler elder Zeev “Zambish” Hever and are the only ones eligible to vote.

The settlement movement enjoyed wide support from the right-wing Israeli government that has held power since early 2015, especially after US President Donald Trump entered the White House in January 2017. Boosterism for the settlement movement peaked just before last month’s elections when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to immediately annex the Jordan Valley if he won.

However, the results did not give the Likud leader and his natural right-wing coalition partners enough seats to form a coalition, and if any government is to be formed in the coming weeks it will almost certainly include the centrist Blue and White party, which received, by a narrow margin, the most votes on September 17.

The slate’s leader Benny Gantz has expressed unwavering support for the so-called settlement blocs — highly populated areas, generally close to the Green Line, which most Israelis believe will be maintained in any peace deal, and he too backs annexing the Jordan Valley. However, the party’s platform hints at a necessity for concessions in the form of evacuations of settlements deep in the West Bank in the context of an agreement with the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R)
with Yesha Council chairman Hananel Dorani, November 7, 2014. (Courtesy)

Policies such as a building freeze in those far-off settlements would of course be a nonstarter for the Yesha Council, which may have gotten used to working with a prime minister who boasted of telling Washington that he does not differentiate between isolated communities and those inside the “blocs.”

The umbrella body has also enjoyed recognition and cooperation from the White House, whose recently retired peace envoy Jason Greenblatt said he prefers referring to the settlements deemed illegitimate by the international community as “neighborhoods and cities.

While Trump still has over a year left in his term and may win re-election, there is also the possibility that the next Yesha Council chairman will be forced to reckon with a Democrat-run White House. Several contenders for the party’s nomination, including senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have campaigned on withholding aid to Israel in order to pressure it over settlements. And even those who take more moderate approaches will seek to curtail settlement building through other means.

Theoretically, the more imminent challenge for the settlement movement would be the unrolling of the Trump administration’s peace plan. But US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has said it would not require the evacuation of a single settlement and the four candidates in the settler leadership race who spoke to The Times of Israel were skeptical about whether it would ever be released at all, let alone be something that they might have to worry about.

Each candidate offered a unique approach to how they would manage the leadership position. However, all were clear about the need to improve cooperation between the various West Bank municipalities in order to improve Yesha’s legitimacy and efficiency.

Fighting for ‘quality of life’

Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhayani said the number one reason he’s running is to improve the “quality of life” for Israelis in the West Bank.

“Our residents are sick of the poor infrastructure that has led to power outages, water shortages and traffic jams. It is the responsibility of settler leadership to provide adequate services,” Elhayani explained. “You cannot improve quality of life until you improve infrastructure.”

The Jordan Valley leader long known for his mustache, which he recently turned into a full-fledged beard, said one way to address such issues is to apply Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank, thereby removing much of the bureaucratic red tape. However, he recognized that such a move is likely not going to take place in the short term.

“We still need to be aggressive in demanding infrastructure improvements in the meantime, in addition to preventing Palestinian takeover of Area C so that there will be something to [annex] when the time comes,” he asserted, referring to locations under Israeli security and administrative control.

David Elhayani, mayor of the Jordan Valley Regional Council Arvot Hayarden settlement, speaks to AFP at his office in the West Bank on September 11, 2019 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Elhayani’s Jordan Valley Regional Council provides services to over 20 settlements, which are home to roughly 5,000 residents. He has served as council chairman since 2009, making him the most veteran politician running to chair the Yesha Council.

He said another one of his goals as chief settler representative will be to unite the 24 West Bank council chairmen, who many see as divided as ever over philosophical disagreements regarding how to best interact with the government.

Israel’s 2005 pullout from 25 communities in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank caused a split among settler leaders between those affiliated with the establishment and those who thought more could have been done to prevent the government from carrying out its decision.

The former camp sees lobbying as a unified front for policies benefiting their constituents as most effective. But the ability of a number of more combative council chairs to achieve results on their own has others wondering whether moderating their views in order to maintain a consensus on issues within the Yesha settlement umbrella council is worth the compromise.

“There’s a crisis of trust in the Yesha Council where many council chairmen don’t see the body as being capable of serving the needs of their residents,” Elhayani claimed. “Many council chairmen don’t show up to Yesha meetings at all.”

Elhayani said with his more “aggressive” demeanor, Yesha members will “finally have someone who will fight for them.”

Asked whether he felt a need to adapt his strategy depending on the makeup of the next coalition, the Jordan Valley mayor asserted that he would “present the interests of our residents no matter who is in government.”

Results guy

Yigal Lahav has been the chairman of the northern West Bank’s Karnei Shomron Local Council since 2013.

Like Elhayani, he identifies as secular, making half of the candidates in this year’s race non-kippa wearers — a rarity for settler leaders who are almost exclusively religious. Israel’s Consul General in New York Dani Dayan was the first and last secular Yesha chairman, filling the post from 2007 to 2013.

But the matter of religiosity did not come up in Lahav’s pitch, during which he primarily discussed his experience in achieving results on behalf of his residents.

Unlike his colleague in the Jordan Valley, Lahav is considerably more soft-spoken and may be among the lesser known mayors in the West Bank. However, he was instrumental in the drawing up of a master plan for transportation throughout the West Bank that is now being used by the government to advance the construction of new highways beyond the Green Line.

Lahav was also influential in the formation of the “Judea and Samaria Cluster of Municipalities” earlier this year. Similar bodies exist inside the Green Line in which various municipalities cooperate to maximize the budgets they receive from the government in order to improve service. But this was the first such “cluster” formed in the West Bank.

The Karnei Shomron mayor said he would work to bring as many foreign leaders as possible to the West Bank “to see from up close what actually goes on here.”

As for the government in Jerusalem, Lahav did not expect any settlement-evacuating coalition to be formed, but said he would work to convince anyone necessary of the “righteousness of our path.”

Karnei Shomron Mayor Yigal Lahav (Karnei Shomron local council)

Talk softly

A similarly soft-spoken mayor running is Har Hebron Regional Council chairman Yochai Damri.

During his conversation with The Times of Israel, Damri prided himself on having lived in the south Hebron hills since the age of 18, serving as regional council head since 2014.

In recent years, he has made one of his primary goals the promotion of West Bank industrial zones that provide jobs for both Israelis and Palestinians. Claiming that a majority of Palestinians are more interested in a livable wage than they are in a state, Damri argues that these industrial zones can serve as the foundation for a future peace deal with the Palestinians. The Har Hebron mayor met with Friedman, the US ambassador, last year, and the envoy was said to warmly receive his ideas.

Beyond that issue, Damri said he preferred to keep his goals as Yesha Council chairman out of the public eye for the meantime, saying he was holding conversations with the voter-eligible settler leaders in an effort to lobby support and would put forth his plans to the public if elected.

Har Hebron Regional Council chairman Yochai Damri. (Courtesy)

“I think the Yesha Council needs an update in leadership and tactics in order to adapt the changing world,” he said, rather vaguely.

Like Lahav, Damri was not phased by the possibility of a more centrist government and said it would simply be a matter of “convincing those who need convincing” to advance their agenda.

“We hope it won’t come to it, but if we need to fight, we will fight… We know how to do that very well,” he said, referring to widespread, settler-led anti-government protests over the past several decades.

Settling in their hearts

The youngest mayor running in next week’s race is 46-year-old Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman.

The municipal leader representing some 24,000 residents in over 15 settlements has quickly risen to prominence among settler leaders since becoming mayor in 2017.

Ne’eman said that as Yesha chairman, he would lead the settlement movement through the next challenge of fully connecting the towns beyond the Green Line with Israel proper through the annexation of the West Bank.

“I will be a strong force against any sort of concession in Judea and Samaria,” he asserted, while clarifying that it was too early to tell whether such an option is even on the table given the political stalemate.

“But the settlement movement won’t sit quietly if they come to fight us,” he clarified.

Ne’eman said one of his goals would be to “settle [his movement] into the hearts” of Jews on the other side of the Green Line as well as around the world.

“We are an integral part of Israel and our goal must be to show those at home and abroad that our place here [in the West Bank] is both natural and eternal,” he added.

Gush Eztion Regional Council head Shlomo Ne’eman speaks at a ceremony opening a new Nature Reserve in Gush Etzion, in the West Bank, December 12, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Who’s got the upper hand and why it matters

One settler leader eligible to vote who requested anonymity said that based off of conversations with his colleagues, Ne’eman is believed to be the favorite in Monday’s race.

“He will run a more aggressive line against the government,” said the West Bank official, adding that Ne’eman heads the largest municipality out of all the candidates running, putting him in the best position to chair Yesha as well.

However, the council chairman who spoke to The Times of Israel said that Ne’eman would face a tough fight against Elhayani and Lahav.

The latter two represent opposite approaches in terms of how they interact with the government, the official said. Elhayani is seen as particularly close to Netanyahu and more willing to toe the line of the government, even when the latter leads a policy of restraint in the settlements.

Lahav, while also a Likud member, has support from prominent council chairmen and plans to take a similarly aggressive line as Ne’eman. “He just runs a much smaller council, so it might be harder for him to win,” the official added.

Putting next week’s election in context, Yisrael Harel, one of the Yesha Council’s founders, said the movement’s influence is a matter of debate.

Internally, many settlers see it as particularly weak and an organization that merely “copies” government policies, explained Harel, who served as chairman from 1980 to 1996.

“But from the outside, it is viewed as one of the strongest bodies in Israel, with even more influence than certain political parties,” Harel said. “Whether or not this is true, having such an image in it of itself makes the Yesha Council more powerful.”

That being the case, the former settler leader explained, it is the job of the Yesha chairman to take advantage of the body’s external image in order to rally members of the government around the settlers’ cause.

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