Has Israel lost the battle for sovereignty now?

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One has to ask this question: If Israeli politicians cannot speak about their fears regarding the Trump plan, how can a sovereignty vote taken in defiance of that plan ever head to the government?

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and YESHA head David ElHayani (photo credit: MIRI TZAHI/COURTESY OF THE YESHA COUNCIL)

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and YESHA head David ElHayani

(photo credit: MIRI TZAHI/COURTESY OF THE YESHA COUNCIL)

Those who imagine that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would move forward on annexing portions of the West Bank without US support should pay close attention to events of this week.

Forget about a government vote. It turns out that even warning that the US’s peace plan is a “disaster” for Israel or stating that President Donald Trump is “not a friend of Israel” is a diplomatic taboo.

One has to ask this question: If Israeli politicians cannot speak about their fears regarding the Trump plan, how can a sovereignty vote taken in defiance of that plan ever head to the government?

Among the politicians known for blunt speech and determination to hold their ground on matters of principle is Yamina Party leader Naftali Bennett. No one ever imagined he would support Trump’s peace plan, given that it allows for the creation of a Palestinian state.

When Bennett headed to the opposition, it was presumed that it gave him the ability to attack the plan and pressure Netanyahu to execute sovereignty, and if needed, to do so even without US support.

But Bennett, who is quick to scold rival politicians, shot out only two salvos against the plan. The latest was last week, when he said it would be a “disaster for Israel,” before he beat a hasty retreat.

On Monday, he publicly backtracked and said he would wait for more details on the plan. But then he did an unusual thing and read out a statement in English in support of Trump, calling him a “great friend of Israel.”

It was almost as if he imagined that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and race riots in the US, Trump or, in fact, any one in Washington was actually paying attention.

But that strange scenario was repeated again later in the week, when in an interview with Haaretz, Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani said Trump “was not a friend to Israel.”

In the universe of political or diplomatic insults, that hardly rates more than a raised eyebrow, and it was said by a politician who does not wield enormous power, nor is he well known on the international stage. He is neither a minister nor a Knesset member.

Elhayani is also hardly the first politician to say something negative about a US official. Six years ago, when MK Moshe Ya’alon (Telem) was the defense minister, it was reported that he had called former US secretary of state John Kerry “messianic” and “obsessive.” And he was one of Israel’s top officials.

True, Elhayani made his statement publicly and has since repeated it publicly and refused to apologize. But his accusation against stalwart right-wing politician Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin was certainly more rancorous, given that he urged Levin to “shed his snakeskin.”

That insult passed almost unnoticed, while Elhayani’s statement about the Trump-Israeli friendship caused the most ruckus.

Netanyahu condemned the comment. He repeated that Trump was a “great friend of Israel,” as did other leading right-wing politicians, such as former justice minister and Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked. She is a staunch opponent of the Trump plan, but she tweeted in English on Twitter about the Trump-Israel friendship. Settler leaders also spoke against the Elhayani slur, with Binyamin Regional Council head Israel Ganz also tweeting about the Trump-Israel friendship.

Elhayani might as well have been a defense minister or a top official rather than a local Israeli politician who believes he is battling to save his home from pending danger. That is due in part to the fact that his words crossed a redline that Israeli opponents of US policy often face when they disagree with the United States – how to state their opinion or sway policy without creating enmity.

When Elhayani speaks of Trump’s friendship with Israel, he is not simply saying an unkind word about the president. He is attacking the Israeli-US relationship, a cornerstone of Israeli foreign policy and a connection that is so strong, it is not just diplomatic but personal. That is particularly so for Trump, where friendship with Israel has been a signature piece of US foreign policy under his administration.

Trump has drawn accolades from the Israeli and the US Right for his three moves: the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan and recognition of Israel’s historic rights to territory in the West Bank, also known as Israel’s biblical heart land of Judea and Samaria.

So the promise to execute Israeli sovereignty over 30% of the West Bank, an unprecedented US offer, should have gained Trump even more adoration. That admiration is particularly important, given that he will need the evangelical Christians, who care about Israel’s hold on the biblical heartland, to come to the polls in November.

Instead, the very people with strong ties to the evangelical community, leaders such as Elhayani and or Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, are the ones who are most critical of the plan and are in the midst of a bitter campaign against it. Their words carry weight in that community, regardless of whether they will have an impact. Dagan has been more careful with his language than Elhayani, but he still has managed to rile US officials and right-wing supporters of the plan.

Either way, these two men have started to turn what should have been an easy public-relations move for Trump, and a joint Israeli-US initiative, into a headache – precisely at a time when the US is learning how stiff the opposition is to the Trump plan from the Arab world.

The idea of a Trump administration squeezed from the right by the settler leaders and from the left by the Arab world has awoken a fear among Israeli supporters of the plan that the US might simply backtrack from it, and the Israeli-Trump romance would be tarnished as a result.

That these two men are also active members of the Likud party means they have the potential to create a headache for Netanyahu as well.

In the immediate aftermath of Elhayani’s comments there were calls for him to resign, a move that is unlikely, given that the settler leadership supports his positions. People may wish he was more diplomatic, but they do not disagree with his conclusions. Even if he were forced to step down, it would do little to take him off the stage, given that he is the elected leader of the Jordan Valley Regional Council.

That position, plus the prominence the Jordan Valley has in the overall sovereignty battle, means Elhayani will remain a strong and outspoken voice in spite of his statements about Trump.

Both he and Dagan fall into the camp of those who want Netanyahu to ignore the Trump plan and approve an Israeli sovereignty plan. Alternatively, they want to sway Trump to change his map.

But if an Elhayani comment can ruffle feathers, then it is hard to imagine how Netanyahu would move forward without Trump – a move that certainly would cause much deeper harm to the strategic friendship between the two countries and the two men. Watching events this week, it seems increasingly unlikely that Netanyahu would make that choice.

Dagan and Elhayani are not wrong to note the problems inherent in the plan, particularly that it creates islands of noncontiguous territory in the West Bank without offering a viable plan to connect those regions.

It is also true that only four years ago, Israel feared US initiatives that could force it to withdraw from the entire West Bank. Prior to Trump, the best the Israeli Right could have envisioned was the retention of the settlement blocs.

No matter how problematic the Trump plan might be, it is still an improvement over past plans, and the US does not seem inclined to want to change it.

So a Dagan and Elhayani decision to press forward with their battle is also a gamble. They could, as they hope to do, pressure the US to change the plan for the better or sway Netanyahu to move ahead, separate from the plan.

Or they could create such a strong sense that no plan would satisfy them, that their cries of existential threats could lose all meaning. It’s a scenario that could backfire. Should this plan fail and a new one is put in place that would be even more problematic, they might find themselves without any audience at all.

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