The last time David Deutsch visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank, it was to ask God to cure him of cancer. Now in remission, the 33-year-old Israeli settler and devout Jew headed back to the shrine this week on a new mission.
“I’m going to pray that Trump cancels the plan,” said Deutsch, as he waited to hitch a ride at a West Bank bus stop.
Religious Jewish settlers like Deutsch are mounting unexpected, vocal opposition as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to execute one of the provisions of President Trump’s plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank.
The Trump plan, unveiled at the White House in January, is titled “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People.” It gives Israel the green light to annex about 30% of the territory, which Israel captured in 1967 in the Six Day War. It would leave the remaining 70% for Palestinians to establish some autonomy, but not a fully independent state with an army or control over borders and airspace. Palestinian leaders reject the Trump plan.
“We are prepared to recognize Israeli actions to extend Israeli sovereignty and the application of Israeli law to areas of the West Bank that the Vision foresees as being part of the State of Israel,” said a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, in a statement to NPR. In exchange, the official said, Israel would need to freeze settlement activity for four years in areas the U.S. plan set aside for the Palestinians and agree to peace negotiations.
Now that an American president has for the first time publicly supported annexation, Netanyahu has vowed to seize what he calls a “historic opportunity” to establish sovereignty in the West Bank. Netanyahu has set July 1 as the target date for an announcement. He could face a limited window of opportunity: Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden opposes annexation, which would potentially put Netanyahu on a collision course with a new administration.
Over the last half century, 450,000 Israeli settlers have built homes in the territory, an act most countries deem illegal. Religious settlers have long dreamed of turning Israel’s military occupation into permanent sovereignty over biblical lands, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
Many Jewish settlers, like Deutsch, worry about the 70% of the territory that Trump has set aside for the Palestinians. Better to annex nothing now, settler activists argue, and claim the entire territory later.
Seventeen-year-old Shira Vahav, also hitchhiking in the West Bank, said she and her friends are planning to erect a new settlement outpost deep in the West Bank to complicate any attempt to carve out a state for Palestinians.
“The danger of dividing the land is nigh,” reads one of the Hebrew posters plastered at nearly every major West Bank intersection.
“Jews, wake up!” screamed a demonstrator into a bullhorn at the western entrance to Jerusalem Sunday during a protest by religious Jews.
Although Netanyahu’s annexation pledge was a cornerstone of his reelection campaign, it is unclear if he will follow through.
Mayor Oded Revivi of the Efrat settlement, like other right-wing allies of the prime minister, supports partial annexation now. Revivi says the prime minister is committed to it, but is facing obstacles. Revivi is in regular contact with U.S. and Israeli officials on the matter.
“It might be that the Americans won’t be fully engaged in it because of issues that have come up in America itself which need the attention of the president and the administration,” Revivi said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic and anti-racism protests.
“It might be [delayed] because of disagreement in the Israeli coalition,” he added. The right-wing Netanyahu has formed a governing coalition with centrist Benny Gantz, who is believed to oppose unilateral annexation moves that are not part of a wider peace initiative with the Palestinians. Revivi believes the Trump administration wants Gantz’s agreement for any Israeli declaration of sovereignty in the West Bank.
The prime minister himself has said annexation might come in stages, according to former Israeli security officials who met with him Monday. He is now negotiating with Gantz to reach a consensus following talks mediated by the U.S. ambassador this week, presenting four annexation options ranging from 30% to a very small percentage of the West Bank, Israeli media have widely reported.
Opponents of the Trump-Netanyahu plan have largely drowned out the voices of supporters. Beside the right-wing settlers who fear partial annexation, there are the thousands of leftist Israelis who turned up for an anti-annexation rally in Tel Aviv this month. Former Israeli security officials have bought ads on highway billboards warning of security risks associated with annexation.
European and Arab envoys have appealed to Israelis’ interests, arguing that annexing territory could shake the country’s alliances with European and Arab countries and lead to unrest.
A group of United Nations-affiliated special rapporteurs and experts said this week that annexation would amount to what it called “21st century apartheid.” They said annexation would “violate a cornerstone principle of international law” against acquiring territory by force, and cement a current reality of unequal rights for Palestinians under Israeli control. Palestinian officials say it would end any chances of a peace deal.
As the international opposition has mounted, public opinion polls suggest Israeli support has dropped. An Israel Democracy Institute poll in late May found 50% support for claiming Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank. A survey published this week by The Jerusalem Post newspaper found only 27% support when respondents were asked to consider an op-ed by a United Arab Emirates diplomat who warned annexation would upend Israeli aspirations for improved ties with Arab countries.
While Netanyahu’s July 1 target date is fast approaching, the Israeli public is in the dark about his intentions. As Tamar Hermann, a public opinion analyst at the Israel Democracy Institute, put it, “People do not know which territories are actually talked about. … We don’t know how the international community is going to react.”
“We don’t know what are the plans regarding the rights of the Palestinians residing in these territories,” Hermann said. “Most of the details are actually missing.”
The confusion was reflected in a sampling of opinion from two dozen Israelis in outdoor cafes in Jerusalem this week.
“I don’t know what this is all about. I don’t understand it,” said Naomi Leitner, sipping an espresso.
Like most of the diners interviewed, Aurit Stone was against annexation. “It’s just sticking some fingers in somebody’s eye. It will disrupt the whole Middle East,” she said.
The one supporter was a Boston native and longtime Israeli resident, orthodox Rabbi Betsalel Philip Edwards.
“We’re getting 30%, they’re getting 70%. It’s the best deal they’re gonna get,” he said.
But Edwards believes it will not be Israel’s last move. He envisions Israel taking over 100% of the West Bank, and expanding its dominion deeper into the Middle East.
“As a religious Jew, I believe God gave us the land of Israel, and some day, all the way to the Euphrates [River], as it says in the Book of Ezekiel,” he said.
Sami Sockol contributed reporting from Jerusalem; NPR’s Michele Kelemen contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.