In West Bank, settlers say sovereignty pledge isn’t what’s driving them to polls

Voters in three Israeli communities over the Green Line arrive to vote thinking about security and religion, not annexation

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

Union of Right Wing Parties MK Bezalel Smotrich walks into a polling station in the northern West Bank settlement of Kedumim on April 9, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)
Union of Right Wing Parties MK Bezalel Smotrich walks into a polling station in the northern West Bank settlement of Kedumim on April 9, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eleventh-hour pledge to extend sovereignty over settlements if he’s reelected, one might have expected Israelis in the West Bank to arrive at the polls on Tuesday with an extra spring in their step, given what looked like a chance to cement the movement they’ve helped build.

But whether or not they believed the words that came out of the mouth of their ostensibly panic-ridden prime minister in his Saturday evening TV interview, the issue of annexation appeared to be no more than an afterthought for citizens beyond the Green Line as they entered the ballot booth and grabbed the slip of their party of choice.

“They talk all the time about annexing, evacuating; at the end of the day, I’m still here. It doesn’t look like anything will change,” said Ariel resident Yitzhak Kroter, 62, as he arrived at a community center to vote for Likud as he always has.

Seeking to survey as broad a representation of settler opinions as possible, The Times of Israel visited three settlements during the early hours of voting: the more secular city-settlement of Ariel, the ultra-Orthodox town of Emmanuel and the largely national-religious-dominated community of Karnei Shomron.

‘Only Bibi’ in Ariel

Less than a dozen residents were at the Ariel community center in the Ariel settlement as polls opened at 7 a.m. Given that it was a national holiday, locals had less of a reason to wake up at dawn. But despite the early hour, the atmosphere was lively as one man on crutches attempted a last-ditch effort to convince his neighbors to vote for Labor as they waited outside for the polling station to open.

“What has Bibi done for you? Tell me!” he shouted as the others rolled their eyes, unimpressed.

Israelis wait to vote in the northern West Bank settlement of Ariel on April 9, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“Are you sure you’re from here?” a woman quipped in response.

Standing off to the side was Svetlana Ushkoff, a 62-year-old immigrant from the former Soviet Union. She said she planned on voting for Likud as she always has, “because of security. There are terror attacks around here all the time. It’s important to have someone who knows how to handle such matters.”

She said Netanyahu’s settlement sovereignty pledge made her feel better about voting for him, but she had made up her mind long before.

Ushkoff is one of roughly 6,000 immigrants from the FSU living in Ariel, a city of over 20,000 people that celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. “Many of my friends are voting for Liberman,” she said referring to the leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party. “They say it’s because he’s Russian.”

In the previous election four years ago, 16 percent of Ariel residents voted for Yisrael Beytenu, the second most popular party in the settlement after Likud, which received 46% of the vote.

Polling station usher Sharon Harel in the northern West Bank settlement of Ariel on April 9, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Despite being situated in a city, the polling station had a small-town vibe. Polling attendant Sharon Harel offered voters coffee as they waited in line.

“I know just about everyone who comes to this polling station,” Harel boasted. “In the last couple of elections, I’ve noticed residents have become more aware of the issues and are not just looking to vote, but to influence.”

In Emmanuel, it’s the religion, stupid!

Numbers were similar at voting sites in the town of Emmanuel roughly five miles north.

By 8:30 a.m., attendants operating the polling station at a senior citizen center in the ultra-Orthodox settlement said that roughly 50 residents had cast their ballots. “It’s still early. Turnout will reach above 80% as it has in the past,” one of them predicted.

The sidewalk leading up to the polling station was covered with white ballot slips for the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties — which received the support of over 50% of residents in the past two elections.

Israelis wait to vote in the Geula northern West Bank settlement of Emmanuel on April 9, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Ushers said the plurality of remaining votes in the town of roughly 4,500 would go to the Union of Right-Wing Parties, thanks to the overwhelming support of Chabad residents for Otzma Yehudit, the far-right faction that merged with the amalgam of Jewish Home and National Union earlier this year.

For Zachariah Tzabari, though, the non-Haredi party held no allure. “Only Shas!” he proclaimed as he exited the polling station.

The 86-year-old said he has long supported the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox faction due to its emphasis on religious matters. “It’s the most important issue. We’re all Jews, no?”

Tzabari had not heard about Netanyahu’s stated plans for the West Bank, though he didn’t appear too fazed by the update. “It’s good, I guess, but it doesn’t affect me much.”

A car in the northern West Bank Haredi settlement of Emmanuel with a Shas campaign poster on April 9, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Walking into the voting site as Tzabari left, Orel Zanbar said that after careful deliberation, he would be voting for Shas.

“Last time I voted Yachad,” he said, referring to a far-right party run by ex-minister Eli Yishai, formerly head of the Shas party, that did not cross the electoral threshold in 2015. “My values are there, but when I saw that Shas was struggling in the polls I decided it was important to support them because they really care the most for struggling communities such as this one.”

Zanbar, 26, said he was happy to hear about the prime minister’s plans to normalize the status of West Bank settlements, but that it wasn’t what he was concerned about. Another young man, who identified himself as a UTJ voter, overheard Zanbar’s comments and nodded in agreement. “That is not the essence,” he piped, referring to the annexation pledge.

A bilboard in the northern West Bank Haredi settlement of Emmanuel with UTJ campaign posters on April 9, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

As a small crowd began to form at the polling site, Emmanuel Mayor Eliyahu Gafni walked in and began greeting voters.

“What’s unique about Emmanuel is how calm it is here. You have elections, Passover cleaning and a million other things, and yet there’s still this sense of tranquility,” he said, smiling.

To believe or not believe Bibi in Karnei Shomron

By 9:30 a.m. in the neighboring town of Karnei Shomron, over one hundred residents had peppered the plaza outside one of town’s main elementary schools where several polling stations were located.

Activists from Likud, New Right, URWP, Zehut and even Blue and White operated booths that colored the perimeter of the plaza in different shades of blue.

The settlement of some 8,500 residents has long been known as a powerhouse for the national-religious Jewish Home party, which has received nearly 45% of the vote in the last two elections.

Election signs for Likud and Zehut in the northern West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron on April 9, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Karnei Shomron Local Council chairman Yigal Lahav said he expected that to change in this election given Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s splitting from Jewish Home in order to form the New Right.

Lahav, himself a Likud member, predicted that the ruling party — which in the past has received roughly 30% of the vote — would likely surpass the Jewish Home’s current iteration, URWP, for the first time on Tuesday.

Among those assisting in that effort was Geula Levy. The 52-year-old longtime Likud voter said she once again stuffed the slip for Netanyahu’s party in her voting envelope because the premier “gives me a feeling of security.”

Geula Levy votes in the northern West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron on April 9, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“Security is the most important issue and I really feel quite safe with him in charge,” she said.

Primed on Netanyahu’s annexation pledge, Levy began to laugh. “You’re asking me about politics. That doesn’t interest me.”

Tammy and Yehoshua Paul similarly dismissed the remarks, but for a different reason.

“Yeah, it would be great, but he’s not gonna do it,” said Yehoshua as he held his squirming daughter in his arms. “It also wouldn’t really be the reason I’d support him.”

Nonetheless, the young father said he had still voted for Likud and appreciated the party’s stance on the settlements. He cited the US embassy move to Jerusalem, Donald Trump’s Golan Heights declaration and the return of fallen IDF soldier Zachary Baumel from Syria as accomplishments that only Netanyahu was capable of.

His wife, on the other hand, felt differently.

The same person shouldn’t be in power for as long as Bibi has been. While I don’t think there were any particularly marvelous options, I wasn’t comfortable voting for him again,” Tammy said, adding that she had voted for the fledgling Gesher party, which espouses socially minded economic policies.

Tammy Paul (R) and her husband Yehoshua hold their children after voting in the northern West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron on April 9, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The young parents — immigrants from the UK and Boston — said that while they expected Likud to enjoy the most support in Karnei Shomron, they thought the Zehut party would be well represented as well.

The pro-cannabis legalization party’s chairman Moshe Feiglin is a resident of the northern West Bank settlement. “He’s somewhat polarizing here, but there are many people, especially young people, that really like him,” Tammy said.

“I also know quite a few New Right supporters,” Yehoshua added.

One such voter subsequently walked out of the polling station.

The Chicago native, who asked to be identified only as Michael, said he had been a long-time Jewish Home voter, but did not agree with the national religious party’s decision to merge with Otzma Yehudit.

“That was a step too far for me,” said the 79-year-old, who sported a Chicago Cubs baseball hat.

Continuing the trend of voters unimpressed by Netanyahu’s pledge to extend Israeli sovereignty to West Bank communities such as his own, Michael called the promise “bullshit.”

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