Netanyahu’s initiative faces myriad internal and external hurdles, making it unclear whether he will be able to begin the process of extending Israeli sovereignty to as much as 30 percent of the West Bank, including the settlements. No official proposal for annexation has been made public, and a mapping committee of Israeli and U.S. officials has reportedly yet to complete its work.
The annexation proposal has been widely condemned, with Jordan warning it would mean an end to its peace treaty with Israel, the European Union calling the move unacceptable and the Palestinians announcing they will suspend all previous agreements with Israel. Israeli security analysts have warned that the move could lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, forcing Israel to resume civic control of almost 3 million Palestinian civilians, and maybe even to violence.
But the pushback from Israeli settlers has been, perhaps, the most surprising.
“We believe the chance to apply sovereignty to the settlements and to finally make them an inseparable part of the state of Israel is a big opportunity, a big gift,” said Yochai Damri, a regional council head in the southern part of the West Bank. But he is adamant that annexation should not come with the price tag of a Palestinian state.
Some of the settler leaders had accompanied Netanyahu to Washington in January for the unveiling of President Trump’s Middle East plan, which provided for the extension of Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the West Bank. They had celebrated Trump as one of Israel’s greatest allies and hailed the plan as the most pro-Israel ever.
Now they fear that a U.S. green light on annexation would be contingent on carrying out other parts of Trump’s plan, mainly the creation of a Palestinian state on the remaining 70 percent of West Bank land.
Damri and others who oppose annexing settlements at this time point to media interviews last month with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who said annexation should be conditioned on good-faith negotiations with the Palestinians for a period of four years.
Damri, 55, lives with four generations of his family in the Otniel settlement, which is perched on a hilltop about 30 miles from Jerusalem. His community is surrounded by towns and villages on the outskirts of Hebron, the most populous Palestinian city.
“If we are left here like this, we will be in the sea of a Palestinian state, an enemy state,” said Damri, who has watched Otniel grow from a cluster of dusty trailers about 40 years ago to more than 1,000 residents with red-roofed villas and creeping bougainvillea. “This is not Canada. We all know there are Arabs who want to kill us. They will do everything they can to hurt us and force us off this land.”
Damri is a member of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization made up of 24 heads of settlement councils. The council is split. In a recent vote, a slight majority said they support Trump’s plan but reject clauses that would freeze building in their communities until there is a final agreement with the Palestinians, and they reject any suggestion of a Palestinian state in the future.
Meeting with members of the council last week, Netanyahu tried to allay some of the fears and impress upon them what he said was a historic opportunity. Some council members, representing communities that are less geographically isolated, agreed with Netanyahu’s approach, but others were unconvinced.
In an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz following that meeting, the council’s chairman, David Elhayani, said Trump and Jared Kushner, the main architect of Trump’s approach, had “proven that they are not friends of the State of Israel.” In another interview, Elhayani called the plan a strategic threat.
Elhayani’s comments and those of other settler leaders prompted Netanyahu to release a statement calling Trump “a great friend of Israel.” On Sunday, he met again with settler leaders, excluding those who do not agree with him.
Philosopher Micah Goodman, who explores the rise of the settler movement in his book “Catch-67,” said the Trump plan has split the settlers into an “ideological right” and a “pragmatic right.”
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told members of the press on Tuesday that annexation was an “existential threat.” He said that if Israel went ahead with its plan, the Palestinians would declare a state based on the borders from 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank and other territories, and seek international support.
“We will see if they do this or not, but the peace process has reached a serious impasse,” he said.
On Saturday, thousands of Jewish and Arab Israelis protested annexation, warning it would upend all future prospects for peace. Inside the Israeli parliament and even within Netanyahu’s governing coalition, there are questions about whether he can garner the support needed to pass the annexation legislation.
Anshel Pfeffer, author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu,” said it still wasn’t clear whether Netanyahu would press ahead with the plan.
“He wants to get credit for making this an issue and for changing the discourse,” said Pfeffer. “For many years, the conversation was about Israel dismantling settlements and retreating to achieve peace. Now the conversation is about Israel going forward and annexing the settlements. Even if nothing changes on the ground, this might be enough for Netanyahu.”