The PM is again warning settlers of a ‘real threat.’ This time it may not work

Like in 2015, Netanyahu insists that only Likud can safeguard their homes — even if it won’t build more — but a new generation of farther-right West Bank leaders isn’t so sure

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) meets with settler leaders in his office on February 25, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) meets with settler leaders in his office on February 25, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/File)

In an interview with the pro-settler NRG news site just a day before the 2015 parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a warning to the Israeli right.

Asked whether he would renew Jewish construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank if reelected, the premier dodged. “The question is not about additional building. There is a real threat now that a leftist government will join the international community and do what they want,” he said, arguing that the last time a left-wing party led the coalition, roughly two decades earlier, former prime minister Ehud Barak was “willing to give up everything.”

Netanyahu waited until a day before the elections to release such flares directed at settler voters. They were said to have been part of a last-minute fear-mongering campaign that polls subsequently indicated helped pull as many as four seats from the national-religious Jewish Home party to the prime minister’s Likud, boosting his faction to a solid 30-24 seat victory over the center-left Zionist Union.

Last Wednesday, just two days after the 2019 elections were announced, Netanyahu showed that he was not planning to waste any time, and opened his meeting with settler leaders with a nearly identical warning to the one he gave four years before.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets settler leaders in Jerusalem, December 26, 2018 (Haim Zach/GPO)

“In the upcoming election campaign, we will see an attempt by the left to oust us from power,” the prime minister told West Bank settlement council chairmen at his Jerusalem office.

“It’s a battle over our homes,” he continued. “The fate of the state and the settlement enterprise are not to be taken for granted… Because later on, under a leftist government, everything will be reversed immediately.”

The settler leaders appeared to respond positively to his message.

Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhayani subsequently heaped praise on the prime minister. “In the upcoming elections, we must tell our residents the truth: the settlement project is flourishing, and that is only because of you.”

Elhayani confirmed the remarks made in the closed-door meeting to The Times of Israel, and said he wasn’t the only one who grabbed the opportunity to laud the premier for his work on the settlers’ behalf.

“Every one of us had his requests of the prime minister, but the atmosphere was very cordial,” recalled the Jordan Valley council head.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) poses with settler leaders in Jerusalem, December 26, 2018 (Haim Zach/GPO)

The overwhelmingly warm reception for Netanyahu may have something to do with the chairs that remained empty in the room. Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan, Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz and Kiryat Arba Local Council chairman Eliyahu Libman announced hours before the meeting that they would not be attending — due to the prime minister’s refusal to accept any of their demands for security funding, settlement expansion and military reinforcements following a spate of deadly Palestinian violence.

In a letter to the 20 other Israeli council chairmen in the West Bank explaining the move, the trio of hawkish mavericks asserted that Netanyahu was “giving them the runaround” and that the meeting’s “entire purpose [was] to create an idyllic picture of partnership.”

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

Netanyahu is banking that the three boycotting council chairmen represent a fringe group of settlers that will eventually return to his limited embrace when they realize that at the end of the day, he is the only thing preventing the rise of a left-wing, settlement-evacuating prime minister. But the new generation of more combative settler leaders threatens to test the support that the premier may have been able to take for granted for the past four years.

No longer an opposition of one

For starters, the flank of anti-establishment settler leaders has expanded beyond just Yossi Dagan. He is now joined by Libman and Gantz, both of whom were elected in October; the latter represents the largest Israeli regional council in the West Bank with over 65,000 residents (followed by Dagan’s Samaria Regional Council, where over 40,000 settlers live).

And the list may not end with just those three names. A number of other settler leaders are said to be increasingly attracted to Dagan’s approach. They include Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman, who represents 23 settlements and outposts in the central West Bank, and Har Hebron Regional Council chairman Yochai Damari, who represents 19 communities in the southern West Bank.

Asked whether he saw himself joining Dagan, Gantz and Libman at some point in more aggressive protests against the prime minister’s policy, Damari told The Times of Israel: “Depending on the circumstances.”

Har Hevron Regional Council head Yohai Damari (courtesy)

“There were definitely those at the meeting who feel no different from Dagan and Gantz,” Karnei Shomron Council chairman Yigal Lahav said.

A former West Bank council chairman who spoke on the condition of anonymity argued that the implications of the anti-establishment camp’s rise on the future of the settlement enterprise could be significant.

Last Wednesday’s meeting between Netanyahu and settler leaders was organized by Ze’ev “Zambish” Hever, the CEO of the Amana settlement construction organization and the figure who most prominently represents the movement’s old guard.

“For a while now, Zambish has been the one who Yesha folks believed was needed to get the ear of Netanyahu,” said the former council chair. Yesha is a settlement umbrella organization that relies heavily on the Amana CEO.

But he predicted that Netanyahu will agree in the coming weeks to sit down with the boycotting settler leaders and even bow to some of their demands.

“This will totally neutralize Yesha’s power, and we will see council chairs asking themselves why they need to work within the confines of Yesha when they can peel off and still get a meeting with the prime minister,” the former settler leader argued.

In addition to their style, the ex-council chairman said that the new generation of settler leaders also has a different philosophy from Zambish and Yesha on how to best advance the movement.

“Zambish has been about bringing as many Israelis as possible to Judea and Samaria,” he explained, using the biblical term for the West Bank. “To do this, you work under the table by building first and only subsequently working to receive approval from the state.”

Zeev Chever, secretary-general of Amana, the West Bank settlement construction movement, August 13, 2013 (Flash90)

The Zambish camp’s argument, as explained by the former settler leader, has long been that if the settlers attempted to work “above the table” to expand the Israeli presence beyond the Green Line, rights groups would notice and appeal to the High Court of Justice to walk back such moves.

The ex-settlement leader said that Dagan’s camp is not concerned by the “threat of the High Court” and specifically wants to expand settlement with the government’s approval.

The Amichai precedent

This was best demonstrated in the establishment of the Amichai settlement for evacuees of the Amona outpost. Ahead of the February 2017 razing of the illegal hilltop community built on private Palestinian land, Zambish approached the Amona residents and said that he had managed to receive tacit approval from the government for them to resettle on a hilltop near Shiloh.

Led by another Yossi Dagan ally, Avichai Boaron, the Amona locals rebuffed the offer and said they were not interested in using Zambish as a mediator between them and the government and that they were going to make their demands directly to Netanyahu.

“They not only wanted their community in a (slightly) different location but they also demanded an official seal of approval from the government with proper services for their new community,” explained the former settler leader.

Karnei Shomron Mayor Yigal Lahav (Karnei Shomron local council)

In the lead-up to the October elections for Binyamin Regional Council chair, Gantz released a controversial statement that made waves in settler circles for the way it attacked his opponent Shiloh Adler, who had resigned from his position as Yesha director-general in order to run.

Gantz’s campaign referred to Adler as the candidate of the “rusty, old establishment institutions, Yesha and Amana.”

A Binyamin Regional Council official revealed to The Times of Israel that Boaron had been behind the crafting of the antagonistic statement.

“At the end of the day, this new generation’s rise will either render Yesha completely irrelevant, or force them to significantly alter the way they interact with the prime minister and his government,” the former settler leader concluded.

The Yesha Council leadership appears aware of the threat posed by Dagan and Gantz, et al.

The umbrella body released a statement slamming the boycotting council chairman, but notably chose to only call out Dagan by name. It seemed to be an attempt to maintain a window for future partnership with Gantz and Libman, even if its relationship with Dagan is beyond repair.

But Lahav, of Karnei Shomron, said the decision to focus on the anti-establishment flank was a mistake.

“Those that boycotted do not represent the essence of the group, so why did we need to take time out to address them?” he asked. “Did they disrupt the meeting or prevent it from taking place?”

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan speaks as settlers and right-wing activists protest against the ongoing terror attacks against Israelis in the West Bank outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on December 16, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lahav argued that the Yesha leadership needs to learn to work with and respect the tactics of the new generation of settler leaders, so they can “return to representing all residents of Judea and Samaria, instead of just fifty percent of them.”

However, the Karnei Shomron Local Council chair appeared to have been more conciliatory toward the mavericks than most in the meeting, where more combative voices such as Elhayani and Efrat Local Council chairman Oded Revivi were more prevalent.

Revivi has released a number of statements over the past week lambasting Dagan and the boycotting council chairmen for their attempts to “trade bodies and blood spilled for building permits.”

As for what the settler leaders managed to garner from Netanyahu in the Wednesday meeting, Lahav said the prime minister agreed to establish a small committee of council chairmen who will meet once a month with the prime minister’s staff to ensure that funds are being properly allocated to the settlements.

The achievement from the settler leaders was far less substantial and concrete that what Dagan, Gantz and Libman were asking for and likely represented a considerable victory for the anti-establishment flank.

“So they got another working committee established, so what?” mocked an official in the Samaria Regional Council. “The PMO has established a number of such committees in recent years and they haven’t amounted to anything tangible on the ground.”

You’ve got the power. Now what?

Even with newfound influence, it appears the new generation of settler leaders is not looking to abandon Netanyahu entirely.

Both Dagan and Gantz have been careful over the past week to stress that they “love and support the prime minister.”

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)

“I did not really boycott him. He invited us as a group and I decided not to come,” Gantz told The Times of Israel. “Had he invited me personally, of course I would’ve showed up immediately.”

The Binyamin Regional Council chairman explained that the settler leaders held a preparatory meeting with Netanyahu’s staff where the council chairmen presented their demands and the PMO indicated what it would be willing to offer.

“Once I saw that there would not be any practical results, I realized there was no point in going,” Gantz said. “With the security of my residents on the line, I don’t have the luxury of playing games.”

Gantz said that he and Dagan were “currently considering future steps” to take if Netanyahu refuses to budge on their demands. “We will not sit quietly.”

But pressed whether such steps could include revoking his support for the prime minister’s Likud party, of which he is an active member, Gantz said that such a move would be “unlikely.”

“But there are other ways for me to influence policy beyond my vote in the elections,” he said.

The Jewish Home party holds a faction meeting with settler leaders in the Givat Assaf outpost on December 17, 2018. (Jewish Home)

“They can push forward candidates in the Likud primaries that will advance our agenda,” explained David Ha’ivri, a member of the Samaria Regional Council’s assembly and longtime Dagan adviser.

In 2012, Dagan helped establish My Likud, a pro-settlement campaign team within the right-wing party that has been responsible for recruiting thousands of members.

Ha’ivri estimated that the bloc represents roughly a sixth of the Likud primary voters.

While he acknowledged that Jewish Home party is seen as more synonymous with the settlement movement, Damari asserted that “the true influence is within the ruling party.” The Har Hebron Regional Council head summarized the feeling among the majority of West Bank council chairmen, who are also registered Likud members.

Lahav admitted that there is a small, but possibly growing minority of settler leaders who publicly identify as Likud members but vote for Jewish Home on election day. But “their influence is limited,” he said.

“Within the family, sometimes there are fights, but that doesn’t mean you get a divorce,” Damari opined.

That overwhelming opinion has created a reality in which both the majority who chose to attend the meeting with Netanyahu as well as the minority which opted to boycott came out of the sit-down with the same goal: to strengthen Likud.

But one former Jewish Home MK and current right-wing activist asserted that the settler leaders’ allegiance to Netanyahu’s party has prevented them from effecting real change on the movement’s behalf.

Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhayani. (Hadas Forush/Flash90)

“Netanyahu hasn’t really done anything substantial for the settlers, yet they continue to remain loyal to him,” said the former MK, citing the prime minister’s refusal to annex any part of the West Bank or take steps to legalize outposts throughout the West Bank.

“If they were to leave Likud and take their Knesset seats elsewhere, Netanyahu would suddenly realize how dependent he is on them, rather than the other way around,” she added.

The ex-lawmaker suggested that the establishment of The New Right, announced Saturday night by former Jewish Home ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, could create an opportunity for a union of the remaining Jewish Home MKs with farther-right factions such as Otzma Yehudit that enjoy support in the more frustrated settler circles.

“The council chairmen may have less of an excuse to remain within Likud if such a party were to exist,” she said. “Though even if they remain loyal to Netanyahu, their residents may no longer be willing to do the same.”

In the end, fear works best

Despite the ever-changing political landscape, the settler leaders acknowledged that Netanyahu’s fear-mongering will continue to convince many Israelis beyond the Green Line.

“There are those that after the second, third and fourth time, it makes less of an impression on them; but at the end of the day there’s a reason why it’s worked so well for him in the past,” Damari said.

Settlers and right-wing activists protest against the ongoing terror attacks against Israelis in the West Bank outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on December 16, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The former Jewish Home MK argued that as long as the election race appears close, the fear strategy will be Netanyahu’s “most effective tool because the damage a left-wing government could pose to settlement is tremendous.”

Apparently understanding this better than anyone else, the premier launched his campaign telling settlers that despite over 50 years of Israeli presence throughout the West Bank, their homes are still on the line. Come election day, the new generation of settlement leaders will play a key role in determining just how effective that strategy will prove.

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