All the Israelis I spoke to wanted more of the West Bank for themselves, weirdly.
The “settler” bus to Beit El was playing the new Justin Timberlake single – no one was tapping along. Beit El is next to Ramallah – in fact, it overlooks it – but to get there by anything other than private car means an hour and a half trip to Jerusalem, changing onto one of the “settler buses” that go from the West Jerusalem bus station, then another hour’s journey into the West Bank via a network of IDF-guarded settler-only roads. This, of course, provided that they’ll let you in. So, after all that, JT whining about wearing a suit just didn’t feel like much of a priority.
The most recent Israeli election looked like it was going to bring settler-Armageddon. Parties led by scary eggheaded technocrats (Naftali Bennett’s “Jewish Home” party) and those featuring candidates with mentors who are actual FBI-listed terrorists (“Strength to Israel” party) seemed like they were poised to join up and form a fearsome right-wing coalition with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu slate. It felt like this was the moment where even the most fringe elements of the pro-settler movement would be thrown full-tilt into the mainstream.
For the settlers in Beit El, expected electoral success wasn’t a pleasant surprise as much as an inevitable fact – the result of a long history of carefully crafted ties to Netanyahu’s government. “Netanyahu is a personal friend of mine, I campaigned for him and he told us that he will never move a Jewish settlement from this site,” said Beit El mayor, Moshe Rosenbaum. At election time, settlers are encouraged to do their civic duty and vote “because it’s important for us to influence our government to develop this area.” “Develop” was thinly-veiled code for “expand”, as he casually mentioned later that “We hope that one day, Ramallah will be 'South Beit El.'”
On the inside, Beit El looks as if someone has hacked off a chunk of Crawley and dropped it in a Middle Eastern climate. Smooth asphalted roads join nondescript Western-style houses with slanted roofs; the local government buildings are a little cluster of white portacabins. The residents seemed to somehow harbour the idea that Ramallah is chock-full of people far richer than they – the simple country people that they are and forever will be.
“Of course, our government buildings aren’t fancy, not like the Muqata (the offices and administrative centres of the Palestinian National Authority),” said Judy Simon, the tourism coordinator for Beit El. She was referring to Arafat’s compound, where he was confined for three years during the Second Intifada. There were also frequent mentions of people driving around in limos – something that makes even more sense when you consider that it’s illegal under Israeli law for Israeli citizens to enter “Area A,” the miniature islands of the West Bank under full Palestinian Authority control.
You can see the hideous Palestine Trade Tower from the top of a viewing tower, along with an engraved map showing the biblical significance of different points on the hillside. According to Judy, Beit El is the site of “Jacob’s dream”. Residents say the presence of an ancient church and a mosque there prove that this has been a holy site for a long time. I asked Judy whether local Muslims can pray there. “There’s no fence or anything around this part,” she told me. But it is it that they don’t want to or that they actually can’t? I asked. “You know, I never really thought of that,” she said. Either way, I also got invited to say a prayer in the direction of Jerusalem, “because everyone has a prayer in their heart”.
After the praying portion of the morning, I talked to some residents about their views on the election. Irrespective of who they were voting for, everyone liked Benjamin Netanyahu. Although they all wished he’d stop “pretending about a two-state solution”. “He’s always been against a two-solution, and I feel like the international pressure from all sides just swirled him around to the point where he felt that he had to say it. I personally feel that he regretted it,” said Judy. She and many of the others were big fans of Naftali Bennett and his “tranquilising plan” to annex 60 percent of the West Bank into full Israeli territory.
Until Bennett went and defied his own hype by getting 12 seats in the Knesset instead of 15, it had seemed that – in a coalition with Netanyahu – the “tranquilising plan” was very much on the table for this government. But Bennett is a rising political star; it’s unlikely that he’ll have forgotten about it by the time of the next election.
On relations with the Palestinians, residents liked a mixture of vague capitalist economics (“the best thing for the Palestinians is if Netanyahu gets re-elected, he has a good track record on the economy”) and Reagan-loving tactics. “We need to negotiate from a position of strength, so that the other side can deal with the practical reality. That means you’re not giving up for no reason,” explained Max Enkin, who works in the bakery. Enkin explained that one of his priorities in this election was electing someone who would talk about immigrants from places like South Sudan and Eritrea.
I asked why he felt this was a problem when immigrants from these places (as opposed to the Russian, American and European ones who tend to be found in places like Beit El) are mostly in South Tel Aviv. He started talking about his support for Michel Ben Ari, an MK who's been banned from the US due to their “prerogative to ban terrorists from entering the country” and who notoriously takes public racism to a level that Nick Griffin could only dream of. I asked how he felt about Ari as a “figure of controversy”. “What if I said I’m a racist? I think my race is the best – I’m Canadian, and I think that Canadians are better than Americans. I’m allowed to have pride and separate myself from others,” he replied.
Fast-forward to election night and foreign journalists are gathered in a nondescript part of the Tel Aviv Conference Centre watching the results come in. Netanyahu is getting panned for taking his whole “King Bibi” shtick too seriously, and Naftali Bennett has been eclipsed by Yair Lapid, a television journalist whose Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party has managed to make a massive electoral gain while no one was watching.
Yesh Atid also seemed a bit surprised by this and hadn’t actually managed to get together any principles before being elected. Yesh Atid member Karine Elharrar made a room full of journalists laugh by saying that “we’re waiting to see what kind of government it will be” before declaring their guiding principles. The election upset caused pundits everywhere to start having verbal seizures about what this means for Israeli politics, to the point where most journalists trying to keep a hold on what was happening looked like they wanted to just go and cling to the open bar for as long as they could get away with.
A group of us decided to go and take a stroll into the Likud Election HQ next door to see what Benjamin Netanyahu’s loss looked like up close. Answer: depressing – the HQ still had giant pictures of his face looming over everything. After hearing rumours of security tighter than any airport you'll come across, we left it until the party was winding down and were met by small groups of Likud-loving, white-garb-wearing settlers and more suit-wearing technocrats streaming out of the hangar where the event had been held.
“I always vote Likud. Naftali Bennett is just too young,” said a 25-year-old supporter who’d wandered over to talk to me. “Netanyahu knows what he’s doing. Maybe he and Bennett want some of the same things, but Netanyahu will do it better.”
Israel is currently living in the political equivalent of the morning-after; Yesh Atid and parties on the centre-left didn’t crumble in quite the way anyone was expecting, but it looks like the coalition will involve them getting into bed with Bibi, and maybe even Naftali Bennett. This is good news for the status quo, but even better news for settlers – Yair Lapid launched Yesh Atid’s election campaign in a settlement. So Ramallah might not be “South Beit El” just yet, but the settlers definitely aren’t going anywhere.
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