Israel’s settlers, once firm supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, have a new political star: Naftali Bennett, head of the hardline nationalist Jewish Home.
His determined stance against the creation of a Palestinian state and outspoken support for the settlement enterprise have won over a significant chunk of voters among the Jewish settler population, which numbers more than 550,000.
“Bennett has a better platform than Netanyahu’s,” said Roni Akrich, a teacher of Jewish thought who lives in Kiryat Arba, one of the West Bank’s more hardline settlements which is located next to the Palestinian city of Hebron.
“It’s important that Netanyahu has to his right real representatives of our ideas,” added Akrich, a one-time Likud voter.
“Likud believes in our ideals but it is very flexible,” he said.
Polls show Bennett’s Jewish Home party could win around 15 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, making it the third biggest party in parliament.
The settler vote accounts only for about four percent of the Israeli electorate, but the bloc generally turns out en masse to cast their ballots, giving them outsized sway.
Bennett is so sure of winning the community’s support that he has barely campaigned in the settlements.
“Those for whom the integrity of the land of Israel is important will vote for our party,” he told AFP.
Bennett cannot, however, count on uniform support from the settler bloc, and he has seen the settler leadership, including his former employers at the Yesha Council which represents settlers throughout the West Bank, stand against him.
Last week, council president Danny Dayan announced he was stepping down to campaign actively for Likud, which is running on a joint list with Yisrael Beitenu, led by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself a settler.
“The most important thing is to strengthen Likud and not divide the right-wing vote among multiple parties,” said Dayan, who was Bennett’s boss when he served as director of the Yesha Council.
“I admit that I’m disappointed by his reaction,” Bennett told AFP.
Other settler leaders have also sided with Likud, with 15 mayors and regional council heads signing an appeal for residents to vote for Netanyahu.
Bennett’s camp dismisses such tactics as an attempt to curry favour with Netanyahu, who is virtually guaranteed to head the next government.
“It seems mostly like tactical support to ensure further construction projects in the future,” a member of Bennett’s camp told AFP on condition of anonymity.
A smaller portion of the settler bloc is also eschewing Bennett, because they consider his views to be insufficiently pro-settlement.
“It’s an important part of my platform, but it’s not the only part,” Bennett acknowledges.
“What we want is to take part in the building of a society that is more just for all Israeli citizens, and not just those in Judaea and Samaria,” he told AFP, using the Biblical name for the West Bank.
That admission concerns Israelis like Yehuda Shimon, a lawyer who lives in Havat Gilad, an unauthorised settler outpost.
The Palestinians and the international community consider all Israeli settlements to be illegal under international law, but the Israeli government only frowns on those built without state permission, such as Havat Gilad.
“I don’t trust him, he’s too much like Netanyahu, a man who has dismantled outposts and frozen Jewish construction,” Shimon told AFP.
“He’s prepared to give the Arabs autonomy, which is against the (biblical) Torah,” he adds, referring to Bennett’s plan to annex 60 percent of the West Bank to Israel and give some measure of self-rule to Palestinians in the remaining parts.
For Shimon and most of the others in Havat Gilad, the only party worth voting for is the ultra-right Otzma LeYisrael faction, which pledges “no compromise” with the Palestinians and is regarded as extremist and racist by many Israelis.