Israel’s settler leaders say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defrauded them of their long-held dream of annexing the occupied West Bank as part of the country’s normalisation deal with the United Arab Emirates.
Their anger could be a problem for right-wing Netanyahu, whom they accuse of repeatedly floating the idea of annexation only to cave in to international pressure when the terms of the UAE deal required him to walk back his promises.
“He deceived us, defrauded us, duped us,” said David Elhayani, head of the Yesha Council, the settlers’ main umbrella organisation.
“It’s a major disappointment. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, a golden opportunity that the prime minister missed because he lacked the courage,” said Elhayani. “He’s lost it. He needs to go.”
Israel’s West Bank settlements – which range in size from a few hilltop caravans to sprawling commuter towns – were built by successive governments on land captured in a 1967 war.
Around 450,000 Jewish settlers now live among 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, with a further 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem. Most countries view the settlements as illegal, a view that Israel and the United States dispute.
When Netanyahu promised during recent elections to apply Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, including Jewish settlements, he said he first needed a green light from Washington.
That green light appeared to have been given by President Donald Trump’s Mideast plan released in January, which envisaged Israel applying sovereignty – de facto annexation – to its 120 settlements in almost a third of the West Bank.
But when Trump announced the UAE deal this month, he said annexation was now “off the table”.
Polls have shown wide support in Israel for the UAE deal. But the ideological settler leadership has significant political clout, and has long been a bastion of Netanyahu’s support.
Aware that he might lose their backing to parties even more hawkish than his own, Netanyahu sought to keep settler hopes alive.
“Sovereignty is not off the agenda, I was the one who brought it to the Trump plan with American consent. We will apply sovereignty,” he told Israel Army Radio, saying the White House had merely asked for a suspension.
But many settler leaders are unconvinced. Bezalel Smotrich, a settler with the ultranationalist opposition Yemina party, said Netanyahu “has been deceiving right-wing voters for many years with great success”.
Palestinians, who seek a state of their own in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, have vigorously opposed the policies of Trump and his senior adviser Jared Kushner, including their Middle East plan and UAE deal.
They accuse Trump, Kushner and Netanyahu of drawing up blueprints that would leave them only an unviable Palestinian state of separate enclaves scattered across the West Bank.
But the Trump vision of limited Palestinian statehood has created strange bedfellows.
The Palestinians say it gives them too little. But for the most hardline Israeli settlers it gives the Palestinians too much. For these settlers, any Palestinian state is anathema.
In the hilltop settlement of Kedumim, veteran settler leader Daniella Weiss said: “I don’t think the Jewish nation needs to give up any of its treasures, any part … of our homeland, for a peace treaty.”
“I am a pioneer that established an outpost, then my children did it, now my grandchildren are doing it. This is the dream and this is the plan and this is what our movement does.”