February 25, 2020 / 3:43 PM / a month ago

Israel's Netanyahu seeks settlers' votes with annexation pledge

HAR HEMED, West Bank (Reuters) - An election in Israel next week could bring many settlers in the occupied West Bank closer to a long-held goal - annexation of the settlements where they live.

Daniella Weiss, an Israeli settler leader speaks to Israeli men during her interview with Reuters in the settlement outpost of Har Hemed near the settlement of Kedumim in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 20, 2020. Picture taken February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

But for hardline settlers, that prize could come with an unacceptable price - the creation of a Palestinian state.

Their dream of consolidating Israel’s hold on the West Bank and their nightmare of giving some of it up are both included in the pages of U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for the Middle East, announced in January.

Fighting for his political survival in Israel’s third election in less than a year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged, if he wins Monday’s vote, to apply Israeli sovereignty to the settlements, built on land captured in a war in 1967.

His frequent campaign stops in settlements and promises of de-facto annexation - which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said would create a fragmented and unviable “Swiss cheese” of a Palestinian state - could draw votes from the far-right.

But Netanyahu’s annexation promises do not go far enough for some settlers. They believe God promised the land to their forefathers and want all the West Bank, for which they use the Biblical name Judea and Samaria, not just the settlements.

“Rest assured that we will not stop claiming every single inch of this land when Netanyahu, please God, is elected,” said Daniella Weiss, a settler leader from Kedumim who helped establish the nearby settlement outpost of Har Hemed.

The provisions of Trump’s plan will for the first time be a factor for voters as the contents were announced after Israel’s inconclusive elections on April 9 and Sept. 17 last year.

The West Bank’s 450,000 settlers, living in more than 250 settlements and outposts among towns where 3 million Palestinians reside, make up only about five percent of Israel’s population. But the settler movement is influential, with a high voter turnout, and is powerful within Netanyahu’s Likud party.

“PIED PIPER”

Netanyahu goes on trial on March 17 on corruption charges he denies. But opinion polls show Likud inching past the centrist Blue and White party of former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, though neither is likely to win a solid parliamentary majority.

The settlements traditionally vote right-wing, with Likud mainly competing with religious and ultra-religious parties for votes. Every vote could be vital as the last two elections were extremely close — a single seat in parliament could prove decisive when it comes to coalition-building.

Seeking to shore up settler support, Netanyahu has held almost daily events in settlements, including visiting Ariel on Monday with Trump-appointed U.S. Ambassador David Friedman.

Still, some settlers are skeptical he will make good on his annexation promise.

“He talks about it a lot but something always comes up at the last minute,” said Yoni Novick, from Karnei Shomron settlement.

Novick, 43, had come to the settlement’s pub to listen to a leader of Yemina, a far-right party competing with Likud for the settler vote. Asked for whom he would vote, he said: “I really don’t know.”

Further south, in Maale Adumim, a settlement of more than 40,000 people about 15 minutes drive from Jerusalem, the red-roofed homes, shopping mall, flowerbeds and traffic make it look like many other Israeli cities. But most of the international community regards it and other settlements as a violation of international law.

Israel rejects that view, and is largely backed by the Trump administration.

Maale Adumim’s deputy mayor, Guy Yifrach, said he believed there was broad consensus among Israelis that sovereignty should be applied to settlements such as his. He does not believe Gantz would press ahead with annexation if he became prime minister.

Slideshow (14 Images)

“The question is who will advance it, and who will drag his heels. If Netanyahu forms the government he will immediately advance it once he gets U.S. permission,” he said.

But in Kiryat Arba settlement, settler leader Elyakim Haetzni said anyone supporting Netanyahu was being duped “like the children following the Pied Piper of Hamelin.”

“Netanyahu says what is good for him at that moment. He saw that people want sovereignty, so he’s using it as bait. He wants them to bite at it in order to swallow the idea of a Palestinian state,” Haetzni said.

Additional reporting by Eli Berlzon, Dedi Hayun and Rami Amichay; Editing by Stephen Farrell, Jeffrey Heller and Timothy Heritage

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