21 Jan 2013

Why settler politics are the focus of Israel’s 2013 election

The powerful settlement movement has gained in strength ahead of Israel’s election this week. Will the country’s next government consist of the strongest right-wing coalition in its history?

Israeli settlements (Reuters.)

Most Israelis know that the future of their society will be decided in the territories, and the 2013 Israeli elections will produce a government that will do its utmost to increase control over the occupied Palestinian territories.

To the dismay of some and the delight of others, Israelis are sobering up to the reality that settlers are fast becoming the ruling elite in society. Israel’s 2013 elections will be remembered as the point in which the settler movement became a major electoral force.

Mainstream political discourse has shifted so far to the right that most politicians at best pay lip service to the two-state solution, lest they be branded “leftist” and rendered irrelevant. All polls suggest that the next Israeli government will comprise the strongest right-wing coalition in the state’s history.

All polls suggest that the next Israeli government will be comprised of the strongest right wing coalition in the state’s history.

Unlike past elections, when Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current prime minister, represented the right of the political spectrum and was chiefly challenged by centre and centre-left parties, the extreme nationalist right has emerged as a formidable opponent. The star of Israeli politics in 2013 is Naftali Bennett, leader of Habayit Hayehudi, the Jewish Home party, most associated with the settler movement.

The extent to which the national conversation has steered to the right has left only the party Meretz daring to even call itself “left”. Shelly Yacimovich, leader of the Labour party, has consistently avoided engaging with contentious issues such as the settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians. This in itself represents a victory for the settler movement, which has muffled much of the liberal left during this election campaign.

Naftali Bennett (Reuters.)

Naftali Bennett, pictured right, has become the respectable face of settler politics. As a former Special Forces soldier who made his fortune in high-tech, he possesses the traditional ingredients to make him a leader in Israeli politics. In an interview which drew widespread condemnation from opposition leaders, Mr Bennett said that he would personally refuse to evacuate settlements as a reservist soldier, saying “my conscience wouldn’t allow it”. In a country which treats the army as sacrosanct, opinion polls surprisingly suggested that he only benefited from the controversy.

After successive secular and purportedly liberal governments facilitated the growth of settlements, both physically and politically, some fear that the now-powerful settlement movement’s outright rejection of a two-state solution in favour of a “greater Israel” is dangerously self-destructive.

Alongside others, Tzipi Livni, formerly head of the centrist Kadima party and now leader of the newly formed Hatnua, has attempted to capitalise on this concern while offering hawkish policies of her own. She recently said: “There are three parties that share their beliefs in one central issue: we believe that the government that will be established will lead to the downfall of the state of Israel.”

More about Israeli settlements:
UK summons Israeli ambassador over new settlement homes

Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely and others claim that Mr Netanyahu’s comments in favour of a Palestinian state are empty words aimed at pleasing the international community. “It is time to sober up from the idea of a Palestinian state,” says Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

Even within Likud, moderates have been sidelined or ousted from the party and replaced by a radical list of settlers and their sympathisers. Binyamin Netanyahu will find it increasingly difficult to continue sweet-talking the international community while spurring particular domestic policies, such as building in the E1 corridor.

A billboard campaign by Ms Livni’s new party, Hatnua, which in Hebrew reads “Bibi and Liberman – international boycott; Tzipi Livni – diplomatic solution”, illustrates that some fear Israel risks international isolation and boycott. However, the majority of Israel’s up and coming political leadership appear not to be troubled by such a prospect.

Alon Aviram writes for the 972 website