Trumps Plan Backs Israeli Settlements. So Why Are Settlers Unhappy?

 nytimes.com  02/27/2020 10:02:11   Isabel Kershner

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expected the U.S. peace plan would gain him votes in Mondays election. It might not work out that way.

A settler works on a vineyard in theIsraeli settlement of Yitzhar. The Palestinian village of Madama can be seen in the background.
A settler works on a vineyard in theIsraeli settlement of Yitzhar. The Palestinian village of Madama can be seen in the background.Credit...Daniel Rolider for The New York Times
Isabel Kershner

YITZHAR, West Bank  For the residents of the hilltop Jewish settlement of Yitzhar, President Trumps recently published plan for Middle East peace comes with a blessing and a curse.

For many, it fulfills a lifelong dream: American recognition of the biblical promise and legitimacy of the settlements in the occupied West Bank, allowing Israel to annex them while flouting decades of international consensus that they violate international law.

The whole narrative has changed, said Matanya Gavrieli, 27, a member of Yitzhars leadership council. A president of the United States came along and said the people of Israel have the right to be here.

But what many of the settlers object to is that the plan leaves Yitzhar and 14 other isolated settlements  including some of the most ideologically hard-line ones  as enclaves surrounded by a Palestinian mini state, tethered to Israel by narrow arteries.

Standing by President Trumps side during the rollout of the plan at the White House last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel proudly announced that he would annex the settlements and that not a single settler would have to be uprooted, a pitch that was expected to increase his chances in Israels election on Monday.

But if Mr. Netanyahu hoped this plum from Washington would win Likud the crucial votes it needs to ensure a right-wing victory after two inconclusive elections in April and September, they were unlikely to come from settler strongholds like this one.

The idea of a Palestinian state surrounding Israeli settlements was dangerous, Mr. Gavrieli said, however far-off that state may be. The Palestinians have rejected the plan, which is seen as heavily weighted toward Israel.

It will be impossible to provide security to the residents, Mr. Gavrieli said. Its absurd. Its another way of saying Get up and leave.

The Palestinians were not happy with the Trump map either. President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority compared its proposed Palestinian state to Swiss cheese.

Regardless, Mr. Netanyahu has campaigned hard to convince his base that only a right-wing government led by his conservative Likud party can capitalize on the plan by moving quickly and unilaterally to extend Israeli sovereignty to the settlements and the strategic Jordan Valley.

Signaling their serious intent, an American-Israeli team charged with the preparatory work of mapping the exact areas to be annexed convened for the first time this week in the settlement of Ariel.

Yet all this appears to have had little effect on the voters.

It was clearly timed to have a political impact, Prof. Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said of the Trump plan. But for all of that, nothing has happened.

Pre-election opinion polls again show Mr. Netanyahu, Israels longest serving prime minister, in more or less a tie with his main rival, Benny Gantz, of the centrist Blue and White party. Neither Mr. Netanyahus right-wing religious alliance nor the center-left bloc appear to have a clear path to forming a majority government.

The plan may have helped distract the public from Mr. Netanyahus legal troubles: charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, his trial is set to open on March 17.

Mr. Gantzs endorsement of the plan, at least as a basis for negotiations, made it less partisan but also blurred the lines between his party and Likud. Mr. Netanyahu has mockingly referred to Mr. Gantz as a Bibi from AliExpress, using his own nickname to denigrate his rival as a cheap imitation of himself.

To remain in power, Mr. Netanyahu needs Likud to be the largest party and for the right wing-religious bloc to beat the center-left bloc. In the last two elections, however, the pro-settlement parties squandered votes because of internal squabbling and political fragmentation, a result that could easily repeat itself on Monday.

In September, more than 58 percent of Yitzhars voters cast their ballots for Jewish Strength, a tiny extreme right-wing party that advocates Jewish sovereignty over the entire West Bank and other occupied territories and the transfer of enemies of Israel, meaning Palestinians, to neighboring Arab countries.

But the party failed to win enough support to enter Parliament, and the more than 80,000 votes it garnered went to waste. The party has insisted on running again, despite Mr. Netanyahus pleas for it to drop out of the race and channel its voters to him or allied right-wing parties large enough to be assured of representation.

Yitzhar, southwest of the Palestinian city of Nablus, is home to the Od Yosef Chai seminary, whose students have a reputation for violence against Palestinian villages and for clashing with Israeli security forces who try to curtail their activities. Some Yitzhar voters are now deliberating between the pro-settlement Yamina party and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism.

In the big picture Netanyahu did great things, said Yechiel Klein, 37, another member of Yitzhars council. But wed like to see a stronger stand on the things we believe in.

Those, he said, include the recognition that We are the landlords. Its all our land.

Ora Tubi, 44, a Yitzhar resident who runs spiritual workshops for women and sells health products, said her family from central Israel doesnt visit much because they are already afraid of the drive through the West Bank. Her daughter, 10, recites a special prayer every night that she composed herself, Ms. Tubi said, because she once heard of a settler girl who had been murdered in her bed.

Historically, she said, she considers the Palestinians guests but that good guests  those prepared to peacefully accept the settlements  should be treated well.

Itamar, another would-be settlement enclave southeast of Nablus, has had its share of bloodshed. Its vulnerability was exposed in 2011 when two Palestinian teenagers from a nearby village slipped into a home and stabbed five members of the Fogel family to death in their beds, including a 3-month-old baby. At least 20 residents have been killed in attacks since the settlement was established in 1984.

Moshe and Leah Goldsmith, both 56 and Yamina voters, were among the first families to move in. Born and raised in Brooklyn, their living room window looks out onto Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, the mountains framing Nablus where, according to the Bible, the Israelites delivered blessings and curses.

Any plan with a mention of a Palestinian state is a tragedy, Mr. Goldsmith said. We want peace, but we are not willing to commit suicide and we will never agree to something like that, giving up our homeland.

Ms. Goldsmith described the Jews here as a stiff-necked people, borrowing a biblical phrase for stubbornness, and said they were not going anywhere.

Itamar was only growing, she said, and life had only gotten easier, with two new shopping malls opening up in nearby Ariel in the past 18 months.

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