Settler leaders are gearing up for a major demonstration outside Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's official residence next week, having failed at a fraught meeting on Thursday to persuade him to reconsider the 10-month freeze he is implementing on construction of new homes at West Bank settlements.
Acknowledging that part of the Israeli right was now in open conflict with a right-wing prime minister, Pinchas Wallerstein, the director-general of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, said he left the Tel Aviv meeting with the prime minister "feeling very sad." Many of the 25 settler leaders in the room had worked to help elect Netanyahu, said Wallerstein, and "now we are fighting against him. It's not an easy feeling."
Settler activists also appealed to the High Court of Justice on Thursday for an injunction against the freeze and continued to hamper civil administration inspectors touring settlements in search of building violations.
At what was his first formal meeting with the settler leaders since he took office in March, Netanyahu said that last week's security cabinet move to impose a 10-month moratorium on new housing starts in West Bank settlements was the "best decision" Israel could make in a very complicated and challenging diplomatic reality and that he had no intention of reversing it.
"We took this difficult decision in order to move Israel's widest interests forward," Netanyahu said during the two-hour meeting.
Netanyahu, whose office said that the meeting was held in a "good and respectful atmosphere," told the settlement heads, "We need to pass through this period together in cooperation.
"Instead of creating an atmosphere of crisis, we should focus on getting out of this period and overcoming the problems. We are only a few days into the process, and I ask that you show patience."
But the settler leaders were unmoved and are now planning for a show-of-strength protest rally in front of Netanyahu's Jerusalem residence next Wednesday. They have also filed a petition to the High Court of Justice claiming that the moratorium is illegal.
Late Thursday night settler leaders held an emergency strategy meeting in the Kedumim settlement, to plot additional anti-freeze protest actions. They plan to hold similar meetings in a number of settlements in the next few days.
The atmosphere at the Netanyahu meeting was "hard and tense," said Gush Etzion Regional Council head Shaul Goldstein, who said that it was the settlers, rather than Netanyahu, who spoke during the bulk of the meeting.
At one point Netanyahu told them, "We are not your enemy; we are your brethren," relayed council head Dani Dayan.
"I told him the burden of proof was on him. The way the order was implemented in the last few days was as if we were the enemy," Dayan said. He added that he no longer believed what Netanyahu was telling him.
Other settler leaders also said they were not swayed by Netanyahu's diplomatic arguments in support of the moratorium.
Netanyahu told them, "This step makes clear to the central actors in the world that Israel is serious in its intentions to achieve peace, while the Palestinians are the ones refusing to start peace negotiations. This step has made clear who the peace resisters are."
But Goldstein responded to that assertion with a question: "How many times do you want to prove that we are not the 'refuseniks.' Didn't Israel already make that point when it withdrew from Gaza in the summer of 2005?"
He told Netanyahu, "You have to say that the settlements are not obstacles to peace. We have a legal and historic right to live here, and if you said that is the message, it would be easier for the Americans."
Netanyahu reiterated to the settlement leaders, many of whom have expressed skepticism over the last week that he would renew building in the settlements at the end of the 10-month period, that this suspension was "one-time and temporary."
"Nine months and three weeks remain to the end of this period," Netanyahu said. "At the end of this period we will continue to build. I want to make clear, the future of the settlements will be decided only in a peace agreement."
Addressing specific complaints about implementation of the moratorium order, Netanyahu said that the order was not easy for him or for them. "We will work so that the implementation will be as easy as possible on the public. In places where there are unnecessary difficulties, we will remove them."
Netanyahu wrote down some 30 specific complaints, which he said he will discuss with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and find a way to resolve. He also encouraged the group, which refused to meet with Barak earlier in the week, to sit with the defense minister and raise their specific complaints.
Netanyahu told the meeting, "I want you as leaders to hold the steering wheel with us, but there is one thing that is not legitimate. You can protest, demonstrate and express your opinion, but it can't be that you don't abide by a decision that was lawfully taken. The real solution is through dialogue and finding solutions during this limited time period."
Netanyahu said he had no intention of reversing the security cabinet's decision, but that there would be continuous dialogue with the settlement leaders.
Dayan said that the settlers had not sought to ease the building restrictions with regard to air-conditioners, or even to negotiate. "Our aim is to bring the freeze to an end," he said.
Goldstein said that he walked away with a feeling that the moratorium was here to stay. For that reason he and other regional and local council heads have petitioned the High Court of Justice to stop the freeze.
Their attorney, Shay Gabssi, said that the suit claimed that the moratorium exceeded the military commander's authority. He added that the moratorium could not be imposed retroactively and that more warning time had been needed.
In addition he said there was no mechanism for compensation and that the order was likely to cost contractors and home-owners millions of shekels.
A second petition against the moratorium was filed earlier this week by the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel. The petition claimed that the security cabinet decision needed the government's full vote before it could be implemented.