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Analysis

Vote count shows settlers came out in droves for Netanyahu; Yamina, Otzma fell

While some attribute bump for Likud to annexation pledges, others say it had to do with allegiance to premier, who is seen as being under attack

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during an inauguration ceremony of a new neighborhood in the Kiryat Arba settlement on February 23, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during an inauguration ceremony of a new neighborhood in the Kiryat Arba settlement on February 23, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent a great deal of time beyond the Green Line campaigning ahead of Monday’s election, seeking to remind locals of all he has done and will continue to do to further expand and entrench their presence there. On Monday, settlers returned the favor, giving the premier’s Likud party more support than any other faction among Israelis in the West Bank.

Of the roughly 460,000 settlers, 29.7 percent of voters cast their ballots for Likud — a jump of 7.3 percentage points over the September election. Likud has been the most popular party beyond the Green Line in the past, but that has generally been the case when the national religious parties were split. Moreover, the 6.9 point gap in support between Netanyahu’s party and the second most popular one, Yamina, is the largest it’s been in decades.

The increase in support was most evident in city-settlements that were already Likud strongholds, such as Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel, the 3rd- and 4th-largest settlements, with some 40,000 and 20,000 residents, respectively. In Ma’ale Adumim, Likud climbed from 49% of the vote in September to 59% of the vote in April, and in Ariel, it jumped from 44% to 52% of the vote.

In national religious establishment settlements known for supporting Yamina or its predecessor, the Jewish Home, Likud also managed to gain ground, climbing from 23% of the vote in Efrat last September to 34% of the vote this week, with Yamina dropping from 60% to 53% support. Similar numbers were registered in Ofra, where Likud rose from 17% of the vote in the last election to 29%, while Yamina dropped from 68% to 64% in the national religious heartland.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrates in his Jerusalem office with his family and staff, after exit polls come out on March 2, 2020. (Twitter)

Even in the ultra-Orthodox city-settlements of Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit, where locals overwhelmingly support the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, Likud saw its totals rise on Monday compared to previous elections. In the former settlement of 74,000, Likud was the only non-Haredi party that received more than one percent of the vote. That was also the case in Beitar Illit, where 4.2% of thee 21,339 ballots cast were stuffed with Likud slips.

In towns where locals typically hold more centrist views, both near the Green Line and in the Jordan Valley, Likud enjoyed slight gains as well. The party climbed by six points (to 38% of the vote) and by three points (to 25% of the vote) in the Blue and White bastions of Har Adar and Alfei Menashe, respectively.

While in the rest of the country, Likud’s jump from 32 seats in September to 36 on Monday came at the expense of parties on both sides of the political spectrum, beyond the Green Line, Netanyahu’s gains appeared to more significantly affect the national religious establishment party Yamina and the far-right Otzma Yehudit. The former saw its support at the polls in the settlements drop from 24.4% in September to 22.8% this week. Otzma Yehudit, meanwhile, plummeted from 6.96% of vote in the last election to just 1.6% on Monday.

Otzma Yehudit, which was largely understood as having next to no chance of crossing the electoral threshold on Monday saw its support in the most hard-line settlements such as Yitzhar and Bat Ayin nosedive. In Yitzhar, all other right-wing parties gained at the extremist slate’s expense, while in Bat Ayin, Likud skyrocketed by over 20 points to become the most popular party in the settlement.

A pie-chart showing voter turnout among the various parties in the settlements in the March 2, 2020 election. Likud 29.7%; Yamina 22.8%; UTJ 21.1%; Shas 10.7%; Blue and White 9.1%; Yisrael Beytenu 2.8%; Otzma Yehudit 1.6%; Labor-Gesher-Meretz 1.3%. (Yesha Council)

While there’s often an interest in differentiating settlers and their needs from those of Israelis living on the other side of the Green Line, Yesha settlement umbrella council director Yigal Dilmoni argued that the reason West Bank settlers came out in droves for Netanyahu on Monday was not necessarily the premier’s policies that directly affect them.

“The [settler] public realized that there was a struggle against Bibi [Netanyahu] and they enlisted in his support,” Dilmoni said. “We don’t live in a bubble either. We think the situation is quite good on many levels and that Bibi is a top-class diplomat, so why change that?”

Explaining the slight decrease in support for Yamina, Dilmoni said there were many who were turned off by the manner in which the faction was formed. The alliance of the national religious parties — New Right, Jewish home and National Union — broke apart after the September election only to regroup hours before the January filing deadline, but not before Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz reneged on a merger deal with Otzma Yehudit in order to rejoin Yamina, whose leader, Naftali Bennett, refused to include the far-right faction.

Dilmoni surmised that many former Otzma Yehudit voters convinced the party would not cross the threshold threw their support behind the ultra-Orthodox parties instead of Yamina due to anger at Bennett’s decision to leave out the extremist slate.

Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir (second from L) speaks to the media at the party headquarters on elections night in Jerusalem, on March 2, 2020. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

Asked about Netanyahu’s pledges to annex parts of the West Bank along with his other policies to develop Israeli life beyond the Green Line, the Yesha Council director said that those issues had less of an impact. Still, Dilmoni insisted that settler voters believe Netanyahu will carry out the sovereignty promises.

“They [settlers] wanted Bibi because of all the positive contributions he makes, and this includes sovereignty,” Dilmoni said.

But for Likud national religious outreach director Nevo Kaz, there was a much stronger correlation between Netanyahu’s gestures and promises to settler voters and their decision to come out for him en masse on Monday.

“They [settlers] trust him. Nobody else can follow through on their issues like he can,” he said, citing Netanyahu’s directive to have 12 outposts hooked up to the power grid less than a week before the election as the most recent of many contributions to the settlement movement.

From left to right: Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Bezlale Smotrich at a campaign event in the West Bank settlement of Elkana on August 21, 2019. (Ben Dori/Flash90)

“He also made countless visits there during the campaign, to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Kiryat Arba, Ariel, Mitzpe Yericho, Ma’ale Adumim, Efrat and many other place,” Katz said.

Yamina’s English outreach director and polling expert Jeremy Saltan agreed with Dilmoni on what jolted Likud support. “The campaign against Bibi made other people want to identify with him,” he said.

As for other issues that might have influenced the final election results, Saltan speculated that the increase in Likud voters in the Jordan Valley could be attributed to the Trump plan and Netanyahu’s connection to it. The Likud boost in Ma’ale Adumim, he added, could be explained by the premier’s announcement last month of construction in the controversial, nearby E1 area.

“But it’s tough to say for sure,” he said. “Strategic voting is much easier to spot than issue voting.”

Saltan found from his number crunching that one seat of the four gained by Likud in the total result came from former Blue and White voters, albeit this was not the case in the West Bank. A second seat came from former Otzma Yehudit voters, many of whom do come from the settlements. A third seat came at the expense of former Yamina voters and another seat came from increased turnout, he said.

Pressed on whether there were ways in which Yamina could have improved its campaign, Saltan said that his party might have benefited from Likud’s latest strategy, which sought to bring out voters who stayed home in September. “Perhaps there should’ve been more of an effort at persuading votes within the bloc, as opposed to trying to pick up votes on the floor,” he said.

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