How settler leaders worked to reelect Netanyahu and what they want in return

While they’ve sparred with him in the past, prominent West Bank mayors put aside differences to campaign door-to-door for PM’s Likud party days after his on-air annexation pledge

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz (L) gives an award to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an inaugural ceremony of a new interchange at the central West Bank settlement of Adam on December 11, 2018. (Yossi Zamir)
Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz (L) gives an award to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an inaugural ceremony of a new interchange at the central West Bank settlement of Adam on December 11, 2018. (Yossi Zamir)

The last time two of the most prominent settler leaders were invited to a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, they chose not to come.

It was late December, with election fever slowly kicking into gear; but not even a month had passed since a pair of West Bank terror shootings in which two soldiers and a pregnant woman’s baby were killed and nine others were injured.

Arguing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was using the sit-down for a photo op with Israeli mayors beyond the Green Line, rather than addressing their demands for increased settlement construction and security reinforcements in response to Palestinian violence, Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz and Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan peeled away from their colleagues and stayed away.

Roughly three months later — and just two days before the April 9 vote — Gantz and Dagan were again invited to meet Netanyahu. But this time, not only would they heed the call, but the pair also showed up in Jerusalem bearing gifts.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan (L) and Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz. (Roy Hadi)

During the meeting, the two settler leaders detailed their get out the vote strategy for the Likud party on election day. As part of a broader campaign called “Zazim Yemina” (Moving Right), each of them was assigned a city or region of the country where the percentage of potential right-wing voters was high, but the voter turnout in recent elections had been low. They, along with hundreds of activists from their municipalities, would go door-to-door on election day encouraging Israelis to vote. For part of the time, Gantz and Dagan would be joined by Likud ministers Ze’ev Elkin and Yariv Levin, providing those who opened the door a not-so-subtle hint at who they should vote for, without explicitly calling on them to support Netanyahu’s party.

“The combination of a minister at your door and someone from Judea and Samaria telling you it’s very important for his future that you vote is very powerful,” said Gantz.

Explaining the decision to go door-to-door on behalf of someone they felt wasn’t taking the security of their residents seriously less than four months earlier, both Gantz and Dagan told The Times of Israel that the ramifications of a Netanyahu defeat were too serious for petty politics.

We could have very easily woken up to a reality of a left-wing government, which would have harmed the settlement movement,” Gantz said.

Likud minister Yariv Levin (L) looks on as Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan knocks on a door to campaign for Likud on April 9, 2019. (Samaria Regional Council)

Dagan used rhetoric almost identical to Netanyahu’s in the days ahead of the election. “If in the last election, the media tried to convince everyone that the left would win, this time they tried to play it as if Netanyahu was going to win in a landslide,” the fiery settler leader explained.

“Thank God, the people are nationalist and we helped wake them up from the media-imposed stupor in the nick of time,” Dagan added, apparently concluding that this reporter had not been involved in the “left-wing plot.” 

In the coastal southern city of Ashdod where Dagan canvassed along with 1,000 other volunteers from his municipality in the northern West Bank, 39,499 people voted for Likud — nearly 4,000 more than in the 2015 elections.

In the nearby town of Kiryat Gat where Gantz campaigned, 11,506 residents voted for Likud — nearly 2,000 more than in 2015.

“The prime minister called me in the middle of the day concerned about voter turnout. I told him Mr. Prime Minister, we’re currently in Ashdod with a thousand people, everyone here is supporting you. When you help the Shomron [Samaria, or northern West Bank], the Israeli public is with you,” Dagan recalled.

After a day full of campaigning, Gantz and Dagan headed to Tel Aviv for the Likud election party. Netanyahu embraced the settler leaders after the results came in, showing Likud and the right-wing bloc had won comfortably.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r) with settler leader Yossi Dagan at event commemorating 50 years of settlement in the West Bank, August 28, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“Ah! Now here’s a Gantz that I’m happy to see,” the Binyamin Regional Council chairman quoted the prime minister as having said to him moments after defeating Blue and White head Benny Gantz.

We’ll scratch your back…

While both Gantz and Dagan said that their decision to get out the vote for Netanyahu had been made well before their meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office, it appears difficult to view the sit-down as disconnected from an interview the premier gave the evening before.

Netanyahu told Channel 12 news that he would apply Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements if reelected, the first time the prime minister had gone on record in support of annexation.

Gantz admitted to being rather surprised by the remarks and arrived at the meeting with Dagan and two other mayors from their more hawkish flank — Har Hebron Regional Council chairman Yochai Damri and Kiryat Arba-Hebron Local Council chairman Eliyahu Libman — hoping to get a better understanding of what Netanyahu had meant.

(From L-R) Likud Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz post for a photo with a group of residents in Pisgat Ze’ev during their door-to-door campaigning on April 9, 2019. (Binyamin Regional Council)

When I pledged to apply sovereignty, it wasn’t just a slogan and I told this to Trump officials as well. I’m taking this very seriously,” Gantz recalled Netanyahu as having said.

Dagan said he asked the premier whether he was distinguishing between the so-called settlement blocs closer to the Green Line and the isolated communities deeper into the West Bank and Netanyahu told him definitely that he was not.

Asked whether he believed Netanyahu’s pre-election sovereignty pledge, Gantz hesitated. “No,” he said, before quickly clarifying. “It’s not really a question of whether I believe it or not.”

“I believe that he wants to enact sovereignty. The question is how much are you willing to commit suicide for it. When do you want enact sovereignty? In 20 years?” the Binyamin Regional Council chairman wondered aloud.

Asked if he felt the fate of the pre-election pledge would be different from some of the other promises that Netanyahu has made to settler leaders for extensive building and funds, which they have argued he has failed to deliver on, Dagan dodged.

The veteran mayor said, “I prefer to look forward and not back. When you have a prime minister who speaks about enacting sovereignty, we must support it.”

As for a time frame, the settler leaders said that Netanyahu avoided giving one. But Gantz said he wanted to avoid having to push the prime minister into making promises just two days before the election. “There’s no point. I just wanted to understand his approach,” said the Binyamin Regional Council chairman, whose municipality serves 49 communities in the central West Bank.

A picture taken on February 8, 2017, shows a general view of a construction site in a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Nili, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AFP Photo/Gil Cohen-Magen)

Dagan was more dogged, saying that he expected Netanyahu to start tackling the issue immediately upon the formation of his new government.

“And if that does not occur, we know how to fight,” he clarified, referencing the protests he’s held over the years outside the Prime Minister’s Residence, for which he has even managed to recruit ministers from Netanyahu’s own government.

What Netanyahu did specify, according to Gantz, was that he would legalize all settlements in the upcoming term — not terribly specific, but for the Binyamin Regional Council chairman where hundreds, if not thousands, of homes are built either on private Palestinian land or without the necessary permits, such a move would significantly reduce the burden on those residents who live in a state of  unregulated limbo.

The Trump in the room

What Dagan and Gantz admitted went less discussed in their meeting with Netanyahu was the Trump administration’s peace plan, which Washington says will be introducing after the Shavuot holiday in June.

Predicting that the proposal would require some sort of limitation on the settlement movement, Dagan called on Netanyahu to reject the plan outright.

I have supported [US President Donald] Trump… and was invited to his inauguration, but you’re allowed to say ‘no’ even to friends,” he said. “Trump will respect that answer more than [former president Barack] Obama would have.”

US President Donald Trump smiles at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, after signing a proclamation formally recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, in Washington, DC, on March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Gantz said he was less worried about the plan, citing Netanyahu’s pre-election annexation pledge as the reason.

If Netanyahu goes to Trump and says I’m going to enact sovereignty [on the settlements], Trump is not going to commit suicide… by then introducing a plan that the prime minister will fight against [with policies that prevent it from materializing,]” Gantz argued. 

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