Undermining elections, rabbi picks next leader of north West Bank settlements

Safed chief rabbi, chosen by Samaria Regional Council chairman Dagan and predecessor Mesika as an arbitrator, gives nod to incumbent Yossi Dagan

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

(From L to R) Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan, Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu and former Samaria Regional Council chairman Gershon Mesika. (Yossi Zeliger, Yonatan Sindel and Miriam Alster/Flash90)
(From L to R) Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan, Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu and former Samaria Regional Council chairman Gershon Mesika. (Yossi Zeliger, Yonatan Sindel and Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A prominent Orthodox rabbi ruled Tuesday in favor of the incumbent chairman of the Samaria Regional Council continuing to head the 31-settlement body in the northern West Bank, and for his predecessor to rescind his candidacy, in a move that appeared to sidestep elections slated for the end of October.

While Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu acknowledged the contributions of both the current council chairman, Yossi Dagan, and his predecessor Gershon Mesika, he concluded that it would be inappropriate to unseat Dagan in the “middle of a great momentum of action” spurred by his close relations with various government ministers.

Dagan and Mesika had agreed to allow Eliyahu to act as an arbitrator and pick the regional council’s next chairman rather than allow residents to choose between the them in elections on October 30.

Elections will still be held as planned, but are seen as all but a formality, as polls conducted thus far have not even included the third candidate.

Some in the regional council have criticized the arbitration agreement, which effectively robbed them of the ability to choose their next leader.

Dagan has served as the head of the Samaria Council since May 2015, when he took over from Mesika, who resigned from the post after turning state’s witness in a high-profile corruption probe.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan speaks during a protest against the planned eviction of the outpost of Amona, in front of the Knesset on January 30, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Mesika, who was never charged for his involvement in the scandal, announced last month that he would run for the post he was forced to walk away from just three years ago.

According to a one-page agreement between Dagan and Mesika, the two had consented that “the arbitrator’s decision binds both sides, and no one will be able to argue that his statements and arguments have not been properly understood.”

Hadashot TV news reported Sunday that Dagan, who was believed to have the upper hand as incumbent, agreed to the deal after Mesika threatened to draw attention to Dagan’s ostensible use of council funds to bankroll trips abroad in order to advance his public image. Mesika also took issue with quarrels between Dagan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he claimed were harming the settlement movement.

The deal helped avoid what was shaping up to be a muddy election campaign, after Mesika tied Dagan to the corruption probe that led to his own ouster in a TV interview just days after announcing his candidacy.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Gershon Mesika attends an Internal Affairs and Environment committee meeting in the Knesset on December 30, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Mesika announced his candidacy in June, after both Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan called on him not to run for the post due to his checkered past.

In December 2014, police briefly arrested Mesika on suspicion of theft by a public official, fraud, and falsifying documents. Five months later, he signed an agreement to turn state’s witness in order to avoid charges.

Police said at the time that a year-long covert investigation had revealed a labyrinthine system in which politicians funneled public funds and favors to local bodies and other groups, as well as their members, in exchange for kickbacks.

The investigation targeted a number of high-level officials in the Yisrael Beytenu party just months before the March 2015 general election, and party leader Avigdor Liberman accused police of an ongoing witch hunt against him.

“There was a mishap. I took responsibility, resigned and went home for three years,” Mesika told The Times of Israel last month. “Now, I’m ready to return and continue the great work I was doing — more work than any council chairman has been able to accomplish.”

Mesika and Dagan have been popular among northern West Bank settlers during their respective terms. Mesika is viewed as a seasoned veteran whose leadership led to a population boom in the 30-plus communities he represented from 2007 to 2015. Dagan is seen as a rising star not just in the settlement movement but in broader national politics, due to his significant political clout in the Likud party.

For his part, Safed Chief Rabbi Eliyahu is a highly respected, albeit controversial rabbinic figure.

Son of the late Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, he led the team of rabbis who were instrumental in the July 2017 conviction of Safed community leader Ezra Sheinberg on a slew of sex crimes against eight different women. However, Eliyahu has also faced criticism for comments coming out against the LGBT community, female recruits in the IDF, and selling apartments to non-Jews.

In his Tuesday announcement endorsing Dagan, Eliyahu said his decision “does not relate to the political sphere… but rather to the word of God,” whose law demands that peace be achieved between quarreling individuals.

While Eliyahu ruled that Dagan would continue serving as regional council chairman, some residents in the northern West Bank have rejected his authority altogether.

Shai Gilboa, an activist on behalf of secular residents in the settlement of Migdalim said it was “unacceptable that a council head be elected by a rabbi rather than the residents.”

Paul Golovanevsky. (Screen capture/YouTube)

He lambasted both Mesika and Dagan, saying the former only avoided jail time by turning state’s witness while the latter had been serving as his deputy at the time and was fully aware of the scandal as it unfolded.

Gilboa claimed that a third candidate in the elections, Paul Golovanevsky, has been gaining the support of residents, particularly secular ones who have felt neglected by the religious Dagan and Mesika.

Golovanevsky told The Times of Israel that Dagan has used his position to boost his personal image rather than serving the settlers of the northern West Bank. He vowed to serve all of his residents equally and called on other candidates to join him in the race.

Nonetheless, Golovanevsky is largely unknown in the northern West Bank, and is not thought to be a viable challenger to either Dagan or Mesika.

Responding to Eliyahu’s decision, Mesika said that he respected the rabbi greatly and had agreed to bow out of the race.

“I will continue to work to strengthen settlement in the Land of Israel and in Samaria in particular as a private citizen,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

Dagan’s campaign put out a short statement of its own, saying that he “is certain that Gershon Mesika will continue to contribute his many talents to the Jewish people.”

One former regional council official who worked with both Dagan and Mesika explained that the latter had not really intended to win, but was merely trying to improve his image, which was last in headlines in connection to the Yisrael Beytenu corruption investigation.

“By bowing out respectfully, it is possible that people will remember him more for his humility than anything else,” said the former official, who requested anonymity.

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