Settlers expect to be Israel election's big winners
Israeli citizens elect members of the19th Knesset on Tuesday. Incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's mainstream right Likud-Beiteinu slate is expected to come out ahead but not win an outright majority. The latest polls show the right gaining strength, with up to 71 of the 120 seats and a pro-settler party scoring the most gains. So a coalition between Likud and pro-settler parties is on the cards.
Standing at the biblical site of Jacob’s ladder, tourism coordinator Judy Simon reads the biblical verses that the settlers say prove their connection to the site.
Beit El is a religious Jewish settlement of 7,000 residents, positioned on a hilltop with a view down onto the West Bank’s largest town, Ramallah.
Simon says that she is still deciding whether to vote for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu slate, or Naftali Bennett’s rising Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party, as she supports the cornerstone of Bennett’s manifesto, the Tranquilising Plan.
This would see 60 per cent of the West Bank annexed to become part of the Israeli state.
“From the beginning I was always a Netanyahu supporter," she says. "I always felt he had his head on straight. But I have to say in the past four years I’ve been very disappointed with a lot of the actions he’s done - the settlement freeze brought us nothing, except for set us back! His announcement that he believes in a two-state solution - he’s never in his life talked about a two-state solution!”
She says that she is resentful of Netanyahu’s campaign methods, which may weaken relations with Bennett’s party prior to what is seen as a likely right-wing coalition.
Max Enkin works at the bakery in Beit El. He says that, while he likes Netanyahu, he intends to vote for either the Am Shalem Whole Nation) party or Otzma LeYisrael (Strength to Israel).
He wants compulsory military service to be extended to ultra-Orthodox Jews and tougher anti-immigration policies.
“People who will make a change," he predicts. "I see too many of the middle-of-the-road parties and individuals as just wimping out and trying to attract the middle-of-the-road voter and therefore be able to get into government and get into power.
"I want someone who isn’t necessarily going to be in power but will say the things that there’s something wrong here and we have to deal with it.”
Michel Ben-Ari, a controversial figure who has drawn criticism for what some have labelled racist anti-immigrant efforts, is his choice for that role.
“What if I said I’m a racist?" he asks. "I think that my race is the best. I’m from Canada - I think that Canadians are better than Americans. I’m allowed to have pride and separate myself from others.”
Enkin is optimistic about the effects of the projected hard-right government:
“Long term, it’ll make it easier to have peace. If I can quote Reagan, ‘Peace through strength.’”
Netanyahu has an "excellent" track record on the economy, claims Hillel Manne, owner of Beit El’s winery and a long-time member of Likud.
“We’ve had the four best years as far as peace and tranquillity relative to the rest of the Middle East and the rest of our history," he adds. "It’s a natural thing - he’s very popular because of his track record."
And, he adds, that Netanyahu's reelection would be the best thing for the average Palestinian, as well.
"That’s the best thing for the economy, including their economy. You see a difference between settlers and non-settlers and Arabs and Jews that I don’t see.”
Beit El mayor Moshe Rosenbaum says he is also a long-time Netanyahu supporter, who is a personal friend.
In the 2010 election 86 per cent of Beit El residents voted, compared with 56 per cent of those in Tel Aviv, Rosenbaum boasts.
“We understand more what the meaning of the vote is. But it also touches us, because we live in what you call the West Bank, we call it Judean Samaria. We know that there is a big discussion about this place, and it is important for us to influence our government to develop more and more all of this area [sic].”
Settlers no longer feel that they are outside mainstream politics thanks to Likud, Rosenbaum says.
"All the polls say that Bibi Netanyahu will be the prime minister," he says. "He understands and he declared that he will never move a settlement from this area. It means that this place will be a Jewish state. Now it’s half but we’re working that it will completely belong to the Jewish state.”