Israel Pulse

Will settlers bring down Netanyahu again?

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Article Summary
Israel's right-wing activists have forgotten the trauma of bringing down the Netanyahu government in 1999 and are willing to threaten the prime minister with leaving the coalition if their demands are not fulfilled.

HaBayit HaYehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked arrived at the Ofra settlement for a closed-door meeting with its leaders on the night of Feb. 4. It had been a very tense weekend in the West Bank following the forced evacuation of the Amona outpost in keeping with a Supreme Court ruling that HaBayit HaYehudi could not block. When the Supreme Court issued a similar ruling over nine homes in the established settlement of Ofra, its residents began a vigorous campaign to overturn the "evil decree."

As they left the meeting, Bennett and Shaked were verbally assaulted on their way to their limos. Video clips distributed to news sites after the incident show the two ministers being heckled with calls like, "Shame on you! We voted for you to fight for us, not to surrender to Netanyahu!’’

The sight of these two ministers coming under attack offered a glimpse at how the settlers employ pressure on politicians from the right, most notably Bennett as head of HaBayit HaYehudi, in the era of US President Donald Trump. Based on conversations that Al-Monitor had with participants in the closed meeting, the mood was tense and often heated, at least as far as Bennett and Shaked were concerned. While the meeting was not described as aggressive, the messages relayed to the ministers were clear, pointed and often delivered in a threatening tone.

The participants in the Ofra meeting were part of the older, established leadership of the settlement. Ever since Trump was elected, they have adopted an aggressive strategy, employing uncompromising pressure on HaBayit HaYehudi. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not the right address, as far as they are concerned. They consider Bennett their champion in the government.

Bennett and Shaked were informed that the settlers hold them responsible for fulfilling the demands of the Jewish Judea and Samaria communities. With President Barack Obama no longer in the White House, they were told they have "no more excuses."

Two days after the meeting, the Knesset passed the Regularization Law despite Netanyahu's request that Bennett and Shaked postpone the vote until after his White House meeting with Trump, which took place two weeks later. The settlers' message to HaBayit HaYehudi leaders was loud and clear: We will not tolerate nor will we accept you surrendering to the prime minister's request, even if it means the collapse of the government and new elections. Bennett and Shaked were also told that the settlers have no intention of making do with the Regularization Law. They expected HaBayit HaYehudi to fulfill its promises to do what is necessary to annex the settlements, now that a friendly president is in Washington.

When asked by Al-Monitor whether they were concerned that their actions could bring about the collapse of the right-wing government, the overwhelming response was that the settlers were not concerned about this possibility at all, as even if Netanyahu falls, another right-wing government would take his place.

"The left has no chance of winning," an Ofra resident explained on condition of anonymity. These are new voices, whose message hasn't been heard since 1999, when the right-wing parties quit Netanyahu's first government. They brought it down in protest of the withdrawals that he implemented to fulfill Israel's obligations in the Oslo Accord. The ensuing election led to the rise of Labor’s Ehud Barak and the formation of a leftist government. It was a traumatic event that haunted the ideological right for years. They have taken care since to avoid radical political maneuvering, fearful of bringing another such government to power. But it looks like that trauma is finally being forgotten in the enthusiasm surrounding the new US administration.

All in all, the self-confidence exuded in the style and tone of what they are now saying reflects a strategic shift among the settlers. They will no longer restrain themselves for fear of construction freezes, as they did in 2009, during the Obama administration. Instead, they will take an aggressive and even contrarian approach toward their own representatives.

The Ofra settlers believe that this is the right time to regularize construction in their settlement. They are convinced that the more pressure they place on Bennett, including threatening not to support his party in the next election, the more intensely Bennett will fight Netanyahu, a strategy that worked with the Regularization Law. Bennett went all in on the problematic law and ended up celebrating his victory that night.

Another incident that shows how well pressure from the settlers works occurred Feb. 17, when there were rumors that Netanyahu had acquiesced to a request by Trump and decided to postpone the construction of a new settlement for the Amona evacuees. Bennett was subject to a flood of phone calls and urgent text messages before and after the Sabbath, and he sent a firm message to Netanyahu not to back down from his commitment. In response to this, Netanyahu informed the settlers that he had no plans to delay the project and that the new settlement will go forward.

Another expression of the arrogance characteristic of the settlers and their representatives in the Knesset these days could be heard during an interview that Knesset member Betzalel Smotrich (HaBayit HaYehudi) gave Israeli public radio on Feb. 20. Smotrich said that Netanyahu will have no choice but to build the new settlement as promised: "For the first two years of this government, there was an excuse and it was called Obama. But Obama is gone now, and we are no longer prepared to accept the idea that our relationship with the United States will be based on a freeze on construction in the settlements."

When asked what his party would do if things don't go the settlers' way and whether he will leave the coalition, Smotrich responded, "We will help the prime minister search for himself and find the ability to establish that settlement. … I hope that this will be a positive message, made by using his head and not by us using our feet."

Smotrich's uncompromising tone should not be taken lightly. It's an expression of the same forces that influence Bennett, who would not exist in the political arena were it not for the settlers. Bennett is following a plan intended to lead him to the prime minister's office. He wants to take over leadership of the right by presenting Netanyahu as a compromiser. This ambition and the unending pressure make a dangerous combination that could spin out of control, as happened in 1999.

One possible such scenario could be an ultimatum by Bennett over the annexation of the Maale Adumim settlement. Since Netanyahu recognizes the potential international damage that such a move could do even during the Trump administration, he could find himself caught in a snowballing political crisis. As the settlers' pressure on Bennett increases, he will come to the conclusion that taking a "heroic" step such as leaving the coalition will bring him closer to the leadership of the right. Chances are that the settlers will endanger Netanyahu’s rule even before the police investigations conclude.

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Found in: israeli politics, donald trump, naftali bennett, ayelet shaked, habayit hayehudi, israeli settlers, israeli settlements, amona, ofra, benjamin netanyahu

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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