New leadership in West Bank could deepen cracks in settler unity
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Analysis

New leadership in West Bank could deepen cracks in settler unity

Municipal election results embolden camp of council chairs who prefer working outside of Yesha settlement umbrella body to advance policies on behalf of Israelis over Green Line

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Settler leaders pose for a photo outside the Prime Minister's Office following their meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu on June 7, 2017. From R-L, Gush Etzion Regional Council Chairman Shlomo Ne'eman, Ma'ale Adumim Mayor Benny Kasriel, Beit El Local Council Chairman Shai Alon, Yesha Council Chairman Avi Roeh, Karnei Shomron mayor Yigal Lahav, Yesha Council Director General Shiloh Adler, Elkana Mayor Asaf Mintzer, and Kiryat Arba Local Council Head Malachi Levinger. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Settler leaders pose for a photo outside the Prime Minister's Office following their meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu on June 7, 2017. From R-L, Gush Etzion Regional Council Chairman Shlomo Ne'eman, Ma'ale Adumim Mayor Benny Kasriel, Beit El Local Council Chairman Shai Alon, Yesha Council Chairman Avi Roeh, Karnei Shomron mayor Yigal Lahav, Yesha Council Director General Shiloh Adler, Elkana Mayor Asaf Mintzer, and Kiryat Arba Local Council Head Malachi Levinger. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Twenty-two elections were held in Israeli municipalities over the Green Line Tuesday, and while the majority saw incumbents maintain their positions as council chairs, six municipalities woke up Wednesday to new leadership after upsets that could upend the political makeup of the settlement movement.

Israel’s 2005 pullout from 25 communities in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank caused a split among settler leaders between those affiliated with the establishment and those who thought more could have been done to prevent the government from carrying out its decision.

The former camp sees lobbying as a unified front for policies benefiting their constituents as most effective. But the ability of a number of more outspoken council chairs to achieve results on their own has others wondering whether moderating their views in order to maintain a consensus on issues within the Yesha settlement umbrella council is worth the compromise.

That rupture has been most noticeable at meetings of the Yesha Council, where no small amount of chairs have been vacant over the past decade, despite an open invitation to all settlement leaders.

Current Yesha Council chairman Hananel Dorani, like his predecessors, has worked to reunite the leaders of the Israeli local and regional councils beyond the Green Line. However, Tuesday’s results largely gave a boost to those uninterested in working as a unified front.

Candidate for Binyamin Regional Council chair Yisrael Gantz submits his ballot on October 30, 2018. (Courtesy)

In the Binyamin Regional Council, Yisrael Gantz narrowly defeated Shiloh Adler 50.3 percent to 49.7%, capping a mudslinging campaign that frequently got personal. Both had aimed to replace outgoing chairman and former Yesha Council head Avi Roeh in one of just two races in the West Bank that did not feature an incumbent candidate. But while the 1,000 vote margin (out of 22,000) may have been razor-thin, the candidates differed starkly in their feelings toward the Yesha Council, and by extension, on the importance of settler unity.

Adler, until announcing his candidacy, had served as secretary-general of the umbrella body. Gantz, on the other hand, had campaigned on a platform that attacked the “old establishment” Yesha Council for neglecting the interests of settlers. He has been known to take a more combative approach to advancing pro-settler policy and has been unafraid of criticizing one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history. This bold attitude earned him the endorsement of anti-establishment heavyweights such as Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich.

Of the four races in the West Bank that saw the incumbent unseated, Eliyahu Libman’s victory over Melachi Levinger in the Kiryat Arba-Hebron Local Council may have been the most consequential. Levinger had chaired the southern West Bank municipality for the past 10 years and had worked closely with the Yesha Council. Libman, for his part, enjoyed the support of far-right activists such as Otzma Yehudit’s Baruch Marzel, who have long criticized the Yesha Council for taking what they view as a non-confrontational approach to disagreements with the government.

Head of the Gush Etzion regional council Shlomo Neeman temporarily moved his office to the place of a terror attack in the West Bank, where Efrat resident Ari Fuld was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist, September 16, 2018. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Since his shock victory in the special elections called after the 2017 resignation of former Gush Etzion Regional Council head Davidi Pearl, Shlomo Ne’eman has been viewed as a rising star in settler politics and a rumored candidate for Yesha Council chair. However, the 45-year-old resident of Karmei Tzur was unable to garner 40% of the vote on Tuesday and will face Moshe Seville in a runoff on November 13. Seville is viewed as a mentee and ally of Samaria Regional Council chair Yossi Dagan, who has long refused to work within the Yesha Council.

Among the 14 incumbents who managed to maintain their seats were a group of chairs who have long deemed the Yesha Council as ineffective and have been absent at the umbrella body’s monthly meetings. They include Samaria Regional Council head Dagan, Jordan Valley Regional Council head David Elhayani, Har Hebron Regional Council head Yochai Damari and Karnei Shomron Local Council head Yigal Lahav who each handily won their respective races.

Rather than working within the confines of the Yesha Council, the four have worked to establish close personal ties to various members of the government, speaking on behalf of their own residents rather than the broader settler movement.

In the Kedumim Local Council, Dorani cruised to a third term in office, garnering nearly 70% of the vote. But with the results of Tuesday’s elections, his second job as Yesha Council chair is poised to be a much greater challenge.

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