NEVE DANIEL — On Wednesday, Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis announced that Jerusalem was punting on annexation, delaying an expected announcement on integrating as-of-yet undefined portions of the disputed West Bank into Israel proper. Declaring that a decision would still likely be announced within the month, his statement extended a period of political and diplomatic uncertainty that has split Israeli, including within the settlement movement itself.
Over the past several days, residents of several settlements widely expected to be included in the first stage of any Israeli annexation plan told The Forward that they remain ambivalent, with many of their neighbors refraining from voicing either vocal support or opposition.
There have been starkly divergent views within the official leadership of the settlement movement, embodied in the members of the Yesha Council —the Hebrew acronym for Judea and Samaria, the Biblical term for the West Bank— with some wholeheartedly endorsing annexation and others opposing it on the grounds that supporting President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” means implicitly endorsing the formation of a Palestinian state.
Opponents of the plan within the settlement leadership have even gone so far as to actively campaign against the Trump plan, which has been criticized by many on the political left for being tilted heavily in Israel’s favor at the expense of the Palestinians.
“I think that anyone in these areas supports the overall settlement community,”said Meir Raskas, a resident of the upscale town of Neve Daniel in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc near Jerusalem, .
A recent immigrant from the US, Raskas said that many of his neighbors believe that “it’s time for a change” but that when it comes to annexation, where specifics are in short supply, they’ve adopted a “wait and see” approach.
“Nobody really knows what it’s all about or if it’s really gonna happen,” he continued, citing recent comments by Defense Minister Benny Gantz hinting that annexation was a lower priority than battling the resurgent coronavirus pandemic.
And while he believes that Israel should take the first steps and place the ball in the Palestinian court, at the end of the day “I don’t’ have a strong opinion either way,” he said.
Walking the streets of Neve Daniel earlier this week, there were none of the banners or political posters that one would have expected from a community enthusiastic about annexation. Residents wearing face masks went about their business and the suburban commuter town had a distinctly laid back vibe at odds with the international furor surrounding its future.
Sitting on her balcony overlooking the Judean Hills, Rachel Moore, the owner of a local public relations firm, said that “most of what I hear as a consensus is ‘I have no idea.’”
“There are people who believe that annexation, no matter how it happens, is a good thing because settlers want recognition of Israeli land by Israel. However hat happens will set a good precedent. Other settlersmaintain that annexing 30 %[of the West Bank] is a death sentence for the other 70%,” while others want to limit annexation because of demographic worries, she said.
“But I also think there are a lot of people in the middle who don’t know what’s best and feel that there is not enough information and that the situation is complicated and are not sure. Other than the consistent refrain that Israel shouldn’t give up on Israeli land, which has little to do with pragmatic recommendations for solutions, I don’t think we’re hearing a lot that’s consistent.”
“Many people who regularly pontificate on these issues have been silent lately.”
One resident of the nearby settlement of Efrat, who asked to remain anonymous, noted that many of his neighbors “don’t really understand what it means” when Netanyahu talks about annexation because of the shifting rhetoric on the issue and the lack of clarity regarding just what is on the table.
“No one cares what the YESHA Council says, they’re very disconnected from whats going on,” he said. “Most people live their lives. We don’t get up in the morning and think of ourselves as settlers. There’s nothing about the way we work, act or interact that differentiates ourselves from others.”
Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi agreed, stating that given the current economic and public health crises, very few Israelis “are actually interested in this topic.”
“The majority of people in Israel are bothered by financial issues and COVID-19,” he said, adding that there was “a lack of clarity exactly as to what is to be included” under the government’s annexation plan.
Asked if people living in areas that will be annexed would cease their support for the broader settlement movement, he replied that the settlement movement was comprised of a mix of subgroups, some of whom moved out beyond the Green Line for ideological reasons and some because of financial incentives.
“In that respect, I don’t think the situation has changed and people who are active will still be active and people who aren’t active won’t be active.”
His comments are in line with polling by the Israel Democracy Institute, a local civil society organization, which reported in early June that rather than annexation, “the main issue the government must address, in the opinion of the citizens, is the economy and employment. The second issue in importance – and far behind – is that of the coronavirus and health.”
Most polls have shown Israelis divided on the issue.
One poll conducted last month on behalf of the right-wing Regavim organization, showed 56% of settlers supporting the annexation (given what they knew of Netanyahu’s plans at the time) and 37% opposed.
“Everyone is asking the question in different ways because there is so much unknown,” said pollster Dahlia Scheindlin of New Wave Research, noting that in many polls, respondents gravitated toward “don’t know” as an answer.
After recently conducted her own poll of 500 Jews and 153 Arab-Israelis, in which she did not include “don’t know” as an option, Scheindlin found that around 52% opposition and 48% support. Supporters, unsurprisingly, tended to skew right-wing and religious.
I asked #Israelis just ahead of symbolic July 1 #annexation start-date, to read summaries of arguments for & against (yet again). I forced the large “don’t know” portion in prior surveys to make a decision. Results? 48% for, 52% against. pic.twitter.com/2A2CINznl6— Dahlia Scheindlin (@dahliasc) July 1, 2020
“Everyone wants closure,” said Seth Vogelman, a resident of Maale Adumim, a West Bank community of some 40,000 residents several kilometers west of Jerusalem, referring to the legal limbo that residents of the West Bank have endured for decades.
Unlike many in the West Bank, Vogelman’s work often takes him to neighboring Arab states and he said that he saw both sides of the issue, noting that while he supports annexation in principal and understands that the current window of opportunity to do so is limited, he is also concerned about how such a move would affect burgeoning ties with the wider Arab world.
“I stand firmly in the camp of ‘I don’t know what’s happening’ and as a result it’s hard to take a stand because of this nebulous situation,” he said, adding that many of his neighbors would enthusiastically support the incorporation of their city into Israel proper.
“I don’t know what happens under annexation and a lot of my friends are taking a wait and see attitude,” Danny Gewritz, another Maale Adumim resident, said “Unclear is a probably a good description of what is about to unfold. Maale Adumim would be one of largest cities to be enveloped and that would be biggest story but it’s running under the radar,” because of the pandemic.
He said that many questions regarding local governance, quality of life and the overall diplomatic and security impact of annexation remained unanswered and that he did not “think that “anyone can have a uniform view of it unless looking at it in a very compartmentalized way.”
“The actual ramifications have not really been laid out.”
The apparent overall lack of excitement by many in Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim likely stems from the fact that their residents “know that whenever Israel decides to annex or absorb settlement blocs, that they’ll be in,” commented Dr. Sara Hirschhorn, a professor of Israel studies at Northwestern University and author of the book City on a Hilltop: American Jews & the Israeli Settler Movement.
“There’s no reason to feel any urgency or apprehension about what their future will be. They don’t feel that they are hanging in the balance.”
However, there are certainly those who, despite all the lingering question marks, seem certain that annexation is the way forward.
According to Bobby Brown, a veteran American resident of the settlement of Tekoa, “there is no such thing as a proposed solution that’s not problematic” but annexation is still the way to go.
“I support annexing all Jewish communities,” he said, expressing both his hope that such a move would spur “responsible Palestinian leaders to begin negotiations and discussions.”