Bennett Gaffe Antagonizes Yehuda and Shomron Leaders

YERUSHALAYIM -
(Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett adjusts his face mask during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington, on Wednesday. Olivier Douliery/Pool via Reuters)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took flak from the Israeli right wing on Thursday for saying that he would pursue “natural growth” in the Jewish communities of Yehuda and Shomron.

The statement—that “Israel will continue the standard policy of natural growth”—was actually meant “to reassure the public that a freeze was not in the offing,” said The Jerusalem Post, but instead served only to antagonize proponents of expansion of the Jewish presence in the region.

This, it said, was “due to the understanding that natural growth has typically meant building to accommodate new births, but does not allow for a population influx from other parts of the country or abroad.”

The gaffe found its way into The New York Times on Wednesday and was later picked up in Israel.

“It is totally unacceptable to speak of limiting building “according to natural growth,” Shomron Regional Council head Yossi Dagan said in response.

“Expanding settlement to the needs of natural growth means neglecting settlement development and growth of settlement,” said MK Michal Waldiger of the Religious Zionist Party.

“It is unfortunate to hear a prime minister expressing himself this way,” she said, adding that it was “twice as unfortunate when it comes to the prime minister who was previously the Yesha Council director-general and who knows how critical development of Judea and Samaria is for the security of the State of Israel.”

The last time major construction plans for the region were advanced was in January, before President Joe Biden was sworn into office.

Bennett announced two weeks ago that he would advance plans for 2,223 homes in Yehuda and Shomron, but a meeting of the planning committee was canceled due to a Civil Administration strike and was not rescheduled.

Regional leaders have expressed dissatisfaction with Bennett before this and held a small protest as he departed Ben Gurion Airport for Washington on Tuesday.

Bennett was not without his defenders, though. Yesha Council head David Elhayani, who belongs to the New Hope Party, which is a member of the coalition, said that “natural growth” was not necessarily so strictly aligned with the birth rate and could also include population influx.

“What is natural growth?” he asked. If a family has four children and they marry and want to settle in their home communities in Yehuda and Shomron, is that not also natural growth?”

“Sometimes you have to hear the words in the right way,” said Elhayani.