Are Israeli Settlers Losing Their Political Clout?

Israeli flag
Are Israeli settlers in trouble? (Photo: Eduardo Castro/Pixabay)

The 2019 election results spell bad news for Israeli settlers. Long considered to be a formidable force in Israeli politics, the hardcore pro-settler bloc appears to be in decline. Should the process continue, it could hold disastrous consequences for the future of the settlement enterprise.

Only six years ago, the settlers’ flagship party, Jewish Home, won an impressive 12 Knesset seats in the elections. The revitalized party seemed poised to grow even stronger under the leadership of political upstarts Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.

But things have not gone well since then. Despite holding some key government posts, Jewish Home failed to significantly boost the settlements’ fortunes. Moreover, the party only won eight seats in the 2015 elections. Things only deteriorated from there.

The April 2019 elections featured three parties strongly committed to applying full Israeli sovereignty in West Bank settlements. Jewish Home, New Right and Zehut combined for 17 Knesset seats in the polls at one point. Ultimately, only Jewish Home was able to clear the electoral threshold, with a meager 5 seats.

In the September 2019 election rerun, a joint Jewish Home-New Right ticket only won seven seats.

Observers have mostly attributed these poor results to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s magical ability to woo the settler vote. But there is more to the story. Indeed, the settlers’ main problem is the failure to truly win the hearts and minds of most Israelis.

Most Israelis Indifferent

While many Israelis are generally sympathetic to the settler cause, they have little financial or emotional capital invested in the settlement project. Hence, the issue is not a top priority for most voters.

The 2005 eviction of all Israeli settlers from Gaza starkly illustrated the above point. The settler campaign to avert the pullout garnered huge media attention but failed to win broad popular support. Large protests against the withdrawal mostly drew settlers and their hardcore fans, but not many others.

Leading right-wing journalist Amit Segal has aptly observed that most Israelis hold rightist views but are largely indifferent to the settler cause. Segal has noted that suburbanite Tel Aviv voters, who are increasingly influential, are hostile to Arabs and leftists but have little appetite for the settlers’ ideology.

Such observations, and the latest election results, should certainly worry the settlers. While they remain well-connected to the political establishment, their influence may be waning as time passes.

It is ironic that these changes are taking place as the question of annexing the West Bank is firmly on the political agenda. The settlers may feel that this is an opportune time to move forward with annexation, but may discover that convincing Israelis to support it may be harder than expected.

It is true that with the peace process in deep freeze, unilateral Israeli moves will increasingly be on the table. But under certain circumstances, the settlers may have to dump their annexation campaign to refocus on resisting calls for more settlement evictions.