Settlers and politics: it's like the Wild West


Last December, the Jewish Home Party released its video for the forthcoming election campaign. Titled, "No more apologies: loving Israel", the short video showed the party leader, Naftali Bennett, dressed as a chubby, red-bearded, baseball-capped, Tel Aviv hipster in a series of situations in which he apologises unnecessarily: a waiter spills an espresso over him; a driver in an SUV bullies him and bumps into his Smart car; he tries to take a city bike from its clamp and a girl swoops on to the scene and removes it from under his grip. He apologises. Then he stands in front of the camera, tears off the fake beard and removes the horn-rimmed glasses – OMG, it is Naftali Bennett! - and declares: "No more apologies: loving Israel". The implication is that Israel needs not ask forgiveness for injustices inflicted on it.

Note the contradictions of this stance. First, that Israel is more often the aggressor than the afflicted: its actions include intimidating those who challenge it with excessive, sometimes fatal force. Second, that his seemingly bold campaign message in fact prescribes no policy shift: Israel never apologises for its actions. Third, that apologies often prove beneficial to those who make them - even in the above scenarios, apologies were probably the wisest and safest course of action.

But judging by the video's reception, Bennett was not confused about such facts. His aggressive, simplistic, childish and arrogant piece of propaganda worked wonders and the Jewish Home soared in popularity. The polls now predicted the party would win 16-18 seats, a 50 per cent jump from their current 12, and more than five times the number of seats the party had before Bennett's rise to its leadership in late 2012. At that point, it looked like nothing could stop the party, and its leader, from reaching mainstream acceptance. However, within weeks, something did stop it.

Settler mentality

The story of the Jewish Home Party's dance with Israel's mainstream is the story of the mainstream's evolving perception of the settlers.

There is an absence of policy in which settlers can pull strings

As a utopian minority of zealots, the settlers have always found open arms in the Jewish Home Party and its previous incarnations, which had traditionally drawn its support from Zionist, "national-religious" Israeli Jews. But Naftali Bennett sought to expand his support beyond this base and build a secular, youthful, intimate brand. Shifting the emphasis away from policy, and letting go of the conservative core that had previously led some to view his party as extreme, he seemed to move the party towards the centre.

Rather than laying out legislative goals, he focused his message on his background-a young patriot who served in an elite unit in the army and made millions from an explosive start-up - a background many Israelis shared with him (and those who didn't wished they could). With his head and face smoothly shaved and an almost invisible kipah on his head, he dressed Israel's conservative religious politics in the clothes of a secular, modern generation.

He calls himself a "brother," and invites the controversy the term sparks. He may be a ruthless warmonger seeking to build a still-more militant Israel but take one glance at him and you know that he's not your grandmother's Zionist zealot.

His brand brought support for the Jewish Home among a young, secular, tech-savvy base once terrified of the party's politics, and phenomenal success in the 2013 elections followed.

But, after the initial success in the polls, the hardcore conservatives decided they'd had enough. In the primary party elections in January, extremists such as Bezalel Smutrich, often criticised for his homophobic beliefs, and Orit Struk, criticised for her anti-Arab racism, were elected to high positions.

The fracturing of the Jewish Home spoke volumes - both about Bennet and the settlers. The settlement movement, as I noted in my five-year research and writing of The Hilltop, my novel set on a settlement, was never "part of the system". It has been enabled not by any grand governmental plan for territorial expansion, but rather - through successive governments since the late 1960s - by a chequered history of religious idealism, political acquiescence, diplomatic gridlock, confusion, and incompetence. As one of the characters remarks in The Hilltop, his settlement has persisted largely because of "the right hand not knowing what the left is doing".

The settlements are not determined by policy, but by its absence. The government finds itself impotent in the face of the fierce determination of the settlers, who pull strings and cleverly manipulate the hodgepodge of laws and conflicting authorities to create a kind of Wild West Bank where they behave like outlaw sheriffs.

It is important therefore for the settlers not to hold positions of authority, because authority means responsibility, and responsibility has no place in the evasive worlds in which the settlements are formed, constructed and expanded. The settler movement can't rely on policy to protect it because policy must abide by law.

It needs - and has - powerful allies within the government and in the army, people who can manufacture "facts on the ground" that forever prevent the possibility of an Israeli evacuation of the West Bank. When you have invisible power, polarising policies serve no use.

The mismatch

This highlights the question of Bennet's real fit to the Jewish Home Party, whether he is really part of its settler flesh and blood. Bennet grew up in Haifa, born to American immigrants. Never a settler himself, he now lives in Raanana, the "Anglo-Saxon" city of Israel. He was always what is known as "religious-lite".

His career in hi-tech exemplifies Israel's capitalistic ideals of the 21st century rather than the Zionistic ideals of its past. Politically, he started in the Likud, as an adviser to Netanyahu. His background makes him more like Netanyahu than any of his predecessors at the head of Jewish Home. Indeed, Bennet doesn't deny that his ultimate ambition is to become prime minister.

But this ambition may conflict with that settler mentality, and this difficult election campaign will force both sides to confront this fact.

No longer can Bennet ignore that he and the settlers are pursuing fundamentally different models for accruing power: Bennet wants formal, explicit power, while the settlers want informal, implicit power. They want a settlements-friendly government that prevents West Bank evacuation at all costs and believe insider connections are the most secure way to achieve that. Bennet seeks the limelight, and believes that his ideas like annexing parts of the West Bank can gain popular support and be fulfilled in the formal way.

An implosion of the Bennet-settler marriage after the elections could be bad news for the settlers, diverting elsewhere the centrist Israeli support that Bennet attracted. But it could also mean good news for them in the longer run:

Netanyahu's long reign as the head of the Likud and prime minister is bound to end at some point, and it is likely that even if he is elected for one last term, it will be by the skin of his teeth. Gideon Saar and other Likud youngsters may take his place, but they may be surprised to find another contender breathing down their necks.

If Bennet indeed steps down as the leader of the Jewish Home, he may well attempt to run for Likud gold, and in him, the settlers will again have the strongest possible ally, without carrying the burden of responsibility. In the meantime, the settlements will continue to write their invisible policies: armed, tight-lipped, and unapologetic.

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