‘Things are going so well’: Settler leaders line up in opposition to elections

West Bank mayors urge ministers to resolve differences and avoid early vote that would freeze or possibly reverse expansion of Israeli presence beyond Green Line

Jacob Magid

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

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)

Settler leaders have never shied away from criticizing one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history for not doing enough to further entrench the Jewish presence beyond the Green Line. But many of those same West Bank mayors on Sunday implored Israeli leaders to avert early elections and keep the government alive as the coalition teetered on the verge of collapse.

Recognizing the apparent danger of a new government to his movement’s goals, Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan released a statement calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to heed the Jewish Home party’s demand and hand the defense portfolio to Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

“It would be a serious mistake to go to elections,” Dagan asserted. “There is no reason to dismantle this good, national government that exists today.”

The fiery settler leader said Avigdor Liberman’s resignation from the defense post last week provided an opportunity to unite two of the pro-settlement camp’s most prominent leaders: Netanyahu and Bennett.

Settler leaders pose for a photo during a new year’s toast with Education Minister Naftali Bennett (C) on August 26, 2018. (Yesha Council)

Dagan’s statement carries some weight given his extensive ties in the Likud party. He has more than once flexed that political clout in quarrels with Netanyahu, including one incident that saw ministers and lawmakers from his own party protest alongside the Samaria Regional Council chairman outside the Prime Minister’s Residence.

The leader of 33 communities in the northern West Bank where some 30,000 Israelis reside was the lone council chairman beyond the Green Line that issued a public statement on the coalition crisis. He was also the only one of six settler leaders who spoke to The Times of Israel that took an explicit position in favor of Netanyahu appointing Bennett.

While others may have agreed with Dagan’s support of the Jewish Home leader, they refrained from admitting so on the record, apparently wary of the fact that the support of other factions will be needed in order to advance a pro-settlement agenda.

“I’d rather not express an opinion on that matter,” responded Karnei Shomron Local Council chairman Yigal Lahav when asked if he would like to see Bennett as defense minister.

However, Lahav made it clear that he opposed early elections nonetheless.

“Elections are always a bad thing. In this particular case, they would cause an unnecessary jolt to the public order that would harm every citizen.”

“All the work that ministers have been doing on our behalf gets frozen for a year,” he said, explaining that government offices focus entirely on campaigning during the months leading up to the vote. Another several months is required after the election until the new executives have finished transitioning into their new roles, he added.

Karnei Shomron Mayor Yigal Lahav (Karnei Shomron local council)

While his greatest concern was over the impact early balloting could have on the settlement movement, the Karnei Shomron head pointed out that an early 2019 parliamentary vote would have broader implications.

“We just had elections for local council chairmen last month. To have Knesset elections in the same year would not be smart or responsible,” he said, arguing that such massive turnover would destabilize all levels of government.

‘Sometimes, the enemy of good is too much good’

Beyond the broader ramifications the settler leaders contended elections would pose for Israel, they also pointed to risks an early vote would have on their movement in particular.

“From a Judea and Samaria (West Bank) standpoint, this has been the most right-wing government we’ve had in years,” said Har Hebron Regional Council chairman Yochai Damari, rejecting the possibility that a better electoral makeup existed.

“We have no interest in going to elections right now that would risk losing that support,” Damari insisted.

Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman went further.

“There’s no [constellation] that could be better than what we have today,” he said.

Har Hevron Regional Council head Yohai Damari (courtesy)

“Moreover, the polls show that we’ll end up with the same coalition partners with roughly the same amount of seats,” Ne’eman argued.

When pressed on the possibility of elections resulting in the strengthening of the particularly pro-settler Likud and Jewish Home parties, Damari pointed out that “sometimes, the enemy of good is too much good.”

“So the right-wing bloc might get a few more seats. So what?” he asked rhetorically, before pointing out that the opposition has done little to prevent the advancing of their agenda thus far.

“At the end of the day, whoever’s elected will do whatever the Americans tell them,” Jordan Valley Regional Council David Elhayani said cynically.

He further extended that argument to Bennett’s threat to bolt the government if he is not appointed defense minister.

“Give him the defense portfolio. He’ll learn the same way that Liberman did that you can’t really go against the opinion of the defense establishment,” he said.

So what are you going to do about it?

While each of the West Bank council chairmen were adamant no good could come of early elections, they viewed their role in the ongoing coalition crisis as little more than spectators.

“We don’t have the political power to push back on this,” argued Elhayani, in a departure for the member of a movement that since the 2005 Gaza Disengagement has prided itself on no longer quietly sitting on the political sidelines.

Gush Eztion Council head Shlomo Ne’eman speaks at a ceremony opening a new Nature Reserve in Gush Etzion, in the West Bank, December 12, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Ne’eman pointed out that the settlers’ political clout was also limited.

“This is not our fight,” he admitted.

Lahav was equally honest in his prognosis of the broader settler silence. While he asserted that individual West Bank council chairmen were voicing their opinions behind closed doors in opposition to elections, a united public campaign on the issue was another issue.

“The leadership necessary to bring all of the (West Bank) council chairmen together on this no longer exists,” Lahav argued, in a clear shot at the Yesha settlement umbrella council.

What the crisis says about the settlers

While they’re often accused by opponents on the left of disproportionately influencing the national agenda, the coalition crisis has offered a rare example of an issue with far-reaching ramifications on Israeli policy vis-a-vis the West Bank that has seen settler leaders, at least publicly, play the role of observers.

“This issue is bigger than us,” Damari summarized.

While avoiding the spotlight might be seen as an advantage to the West Bank council chairmen who expressed a desire to reserve their political influence for issues that more directly affect them, one settlement mayor who requested anonymity disagreed with the stance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Yesha Council leaders at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

“What we are learning from this crisis is that there are more communities that we need to be able to tap into. There are various parties that have been able to bring the country to a standstill, and we aren’t able to do anything about it,” he argued.

The remarks hinted at new constituencies settler leaders may now set their sights on influencing in an effort to expand their sway, so that when the next coalition crisis comes around, they may not have to remain as tight-lipped.

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