What Netanyahu’s election strategy says about how settlers vote

Premier is targeting residents across the Green Line generally drawn to national religious parties, while placing less focus on sizable secular and Haredi populations

Jacob Magid

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

An Israeli votes at the settlement of Efrat on March 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
An Israeli votes at the settlement of Efrat on March 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

Roughly a month before the 2015 Knesset elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a campaign stop at a flagship institution of the national religious camp — the Bnei David pre-military academy in the central West Bank settlement of Eli.

At the start of his address to the hundreds sitting in the campus study hall, the premier placed two plastic water bottles on the podium.

The one on the right represented his Likud party; the one on the left, the rival Zionist Union. The two were polling neck-and-neck at the time. Gesturing at the bottles, Netanyahu told the room full of aspiring leaders in the national religious movement, “We must go for the party with the higher water line.

“The blocs will not determine; rather the party size is what will determine” the nature of the next government, he declared. He was referring to what happens after the election results are tallied: the president selects the party with the best chance of forming a stable government — generally the one that won the most seats — and invites its leader to do so.

Netanyahu and fellow faction members have used this argument during consecutive election campaigns in an effort to lure voters on the fence between the Likud and smaller parties on the right. The choice of audience for that particular address was careful — not only did the event take place beyond the Green Line, where Israeli voters categorically lean rightward, but it specifically targeted national religious voters, who despite making up just a third of all settlers, are the most cohesive and influential subset of the roughly 450,000 Jews living in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Bnei David pre-military academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli on February 11, 2015. (Screen capture/YouTube)

The choice of Eli spoke to Netanyahu’s understanding of how settlers vote. He didn’t go to more secular settlements such as Ariel or Barkan, where a plurality of residents are already supporters of Likud. He also did not pick an ultra-Orthodox community such as Beitar Illit or Emmanuel, where locals rarely cast votes for non-Haredi parties.

While national religious settlers do have a sectoral party of their own — the Jewish Home, which now is the primary faction of the Union of Right Wing Parties — they don’t swear allegiance to it to the same extent that the ultra-Orthodox do to their own parties. This dynamic came into play in the 2015 election results, during which Likud yanked as many as five seats from the Jewish Home in the final weeks of the campaign — seemingly because of messaging drilled down by Netanyahu in places like Bnei David.

The Eli settlement, which cast a total of zero votes for Likud in 2013, saw over 20 percent of its roughly 1,500 eligible voters place ballot slips for the party in 2015. Those numbers were echoed in national religious communities throughout the country.

Ultimately, Likud climbed from 20 to 30 seats to overtake Zionist Union in that election, partially thanks to Jewish Home supporters, who left their party with just eight seats, two-thirds of its 12-seat tally in the 2013 elections.

Netanyahu appears to be pulling out the same strategy from four years ago in the lead-up to the upcoming April 9 vote. One of his first stops on the campaign trail in January was in the Etzion Bloc southeast of Jerusalem, where he visited the Migdal Oz seminary, another prominent national religious institution, followed by Netiv Ha’avot, a national religious outpost where 15 homes were razed last year. There, he vowed to residents that no Jewish communities would be uprooted under his watch, asking for their support in order to ensure that he can remain at the helm and keep his promise.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) meeting families whose homes in the Netiv Ha’avot outpost were demolished last year, at the Elazar West Bank settlement, January 28, 2019. (Gush Etzion Regional Council)

Fear factor

The national religious camp, and particularly the settler bloc, has long been Netanyahu’s preferred target after covering his base — so much so that when Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked jumped ship from the Jewish Home in December, the former claimed the sector his party has long represented is “in [the prime minister’s] pocket.”

What would it take for national religious voters to come out on April 9 in support of Jewish Home and Shaked and Bennett’s New Right splinter faction, the parties that were established to represent them? According to Tamar Hermann, the academic director of the Guttmann Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute, in order for that to happen, the national religious electorate will have to feel confident that Likud can prevail without them.

“If there is believed to be a real threat to a right-wing government, then you will see more people voting for the pivotal party — Likud — in order to create a situation where it will be clear on which side of the fence the coin will fall,” she said.

This is doubly the case over the Green Line, where Israelis tend to be more ideological, Hermann added. There, the fear of a settlement-evacuating government is much more palpable — and carries the possibility of a very direct impact. There’s nothing like the fear of losing a home to get out the vote.

That anxiety would explain the uptick in support for Likud in 2015, when the Zionist Union posed a realistic threat to Netanyahu’s continued rule. Polls in the lead-up to the vote predicted that the union, an amalgam of Labor and Hatnua, would receive more seats than the incumbent party. In contrast, the 2013 race did not feature a threat to the longtime leader’s rule. Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party placed second with 19 seats compared to Likud-Beytenu’s 31, campaigned on becoming finance minister, not prime minister. Consequently, Jewish Home succeeded in garnering 12 seats.

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

Hermann said that the lack of considerable ideological differences between the Likud and Jewish Home makes it easier for right-wingers to jump between the two parties.

Similar to the ultra-Orthodox, the national religious camp votes largely as a group — and in the more religious flank, in accordance with what their rabbis decree. But contrary to the Haredim, who almost exclusively vote for Haredi parties, national religious voters are willing to shift between political factions in order to advance their agenda. Religious Zionists view the state’s very essence as an element of the national redemption and therefore are less worried about party allegiance when the sanctity of the state is perceived to be on the line.

Everyone else

But for all the focus on the national religious camp, it still makes up just 12% of the country’s Jewish population and roughly a third of all settlers. The other two-thirds of Israelis in the West Bank are either more secular or more Orthodox; all live primarily in cities and follow voting patterns quite similar to their peers within the Green Line.

Still, while crocheted yarmulke-wearing settlers have in many ways become the face of the national religious movement throughout the country, ultra-Orthodox and secular settlers do not have a similarly outsize ideological influence on their peers in Israel proper. Consequently, politicians see less of a need to dedicate campaign resources in non-national Orthodox settlements when those resources are better utilized in Israeli cities with populations twice as large.

In the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modiin Illit, for example, between 93 and 96 percent of the city of some 73,000 residents voted for the Haredi parties United Torah Judaism and Shas in the last three elections. Similar numbers were recorded in Bnei Brak, where roughly 85% of the city of some 190,000 voted for ultra-Orthodox parties in the past three elections.

In the more secular-dominated city settlement of Ariel (20,000 residents), a plurality of 46% of residents voted for Likud in the 2015 election, similar to the 43% in the northern town of Afula (population 50,000). While the latter city had more Zionist Union supporters than Ariel (11% to 5%), the political divide in both cities heavily skewed heavily to the right.

An ultra-Orthodox man casts his vote at a polling station in the settlement of Beitar Illit in the Israeli general elections for the 20th parliament, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Times are a changin’

A more recent development among settler voters — and one expected to profoundly impact the upcoming elections — has been the rise of an increasingly religious and nationalist subgroup, the Hardalim, who incline toward ultra-OrthodoxyOnce a marginal force in the Jewish Home, they have come to dominate the party, as evidenced by new leader Rabbi Rafi Peretz, and his merger with National Union’s Bezalel Smotrich, a hardline Hardal himself.

The strengthening of such leaders, and the split with Bennett and Shaked, paved the way for the additional merger with the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, made up of disciples of the late ultra-nationalist rabbi Meir Kahane.

While Kahane’s acolytes have formed various parties to run in elections over the past two decades — even receiving disproportionate support from hardline religious settlers — they have not managed to cross the electoral threshold with a standalone party.

But since Otzma Yehudit’s February merger with the Jewish Home, polls have predicted that the far-right right slate will have one representative in the upcoming Knesset, and maybe two.

This suggests the Jewish Home will receive substantial support in hardline settlements where it hasn’t been particularly popular in the past decade. The northern West Bank town of Yitzhar (population 1,600), for example, which cast roughly 73% of its votes for far-right parties in the last two elections, is expected to now place its eggs in the Union of Right Wing Parties’ basket led by Jewish Home.

The Jewish Home party votes on a pre-election alliance with Otzma Yehudit in Petah Tikva, February 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Given that the entire settler population constitutes less than 6% of all Israelis (roughly five seats in the Knesset), such deliberations regarding subcategories of subcategories may appear marginal. Still, settler leader Daniella Weiss, a former Kedumim Local Council head, cautioned against overlooking the community on the campaign trail.

“Residents of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), particularly the religious Zionists, are among the most politically active demographics in Israel and are reaching more and more positions of power accordingly,” she pointed out.

Netanyahu’s campaign stops over the years suggest that he recognizes that reality as much as anyone else, and is likely to engage in intensified campaigning beyond the Green Line in the coming 33 days.

The premier must pull off a careful balancing act, however. With other right-wing parties such as Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu teetering on edge of the electoral threshold, the premier needs to avoid pulling away votes from parties that he will need the day after the election in order to form a coalition.

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