Israeli right scrambles to woo settler vote

Nearly 200,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank are eligible to vote in Israel`s general election on Tuesday, with their ballots likely to return four rightwingers to parliament.

AFP| Updated: Mar 15, 2015, 23:29 PM IST

Jerusalem: Nearly 200,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank are eligible to vote in Israel`s general election on Tuesday, with their ballots likely to return four rightwingers to parliament.

With a consistently high turnout during polls -- 78 percent in 2013 compared with 67 for the general population -- the settlers are a key target for politicians looking for votes.

The ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett, a former head of the Yesha Settlers` Council, is just one of the parties expected to benefit from their support.

In 2013, Jewish Home won 28 percent of the settler vote, taking 12 of the 120 seats in parliament. This year it is hoping to do the same or better, with polls suggesting it will win 11 to 13 mandates.

Six settlers figure among the first names on its list, giving them a realistic chance of being elected.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu`s rightwing Likud has also been campaigning hard in the settlements, hoping to equal or surpass its 2013 showing when it took 21 percent of the settler vote while running on a joint ticket with the hardline Yisrael Beitenu.

Netanyahu has pledged there will be no pullout from the Palestinian territories on his watch. A major election issue for settlers is construction.

Israeli watchdog Peace Now says that in 2014, settlement building was 40 percent up on the year before, while tenders for construction there and in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem hit a 10-year high.

But settler groups say the pace of growth under Jewish Home`s Housing Minister Uri Ariel was inadequate.

Bennett says he could have done more if he had more seats.

"We have not built enough in Judaea and Samaria (the West Bank) but with only 12 seats in a broad coalition like Netanyahu`s, we could not get more," he says.

Jewish Home has been worriedly watching the entry of a new player into the scramble for the settler vote: the ultra-nationalist religious Yahad headed by Eli Yishai, an ex-minister and former head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Also running with Yahad on a joint list is the extremist Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) faction headed by Baruch Marzel, a follower of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahana.

In 2013, Marzel`s faction secured almost 10 percent of the settler vote.

This time, a parliamentary committee barred Marzel from standing for re-election because of alleged racism but the Supreme Court overruled the ban.

Yahad has won endorsement from religious Zionist leaders who traditionally have been in the Bennett camp.A third of West Bank settlers are ultra-Orthodox Jews who vote for two parties representing the religious right, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which are backing Netanyahu.

In the last election, the centrist Yesh Atid also picked up around six percent of the settler vote, largely due to its deputy head Shai Piron, a rabbi and prominent figure within the settler community.

But the party`s policies are deemed by many as anti-religious, and its rapprochement with the centre-left may cost it votes in favour of the new centre-right Kulanu party.

There are even several thousand settlers who traditionally vote for the centre-left, among them residents of Jordan Valley settlements which were founded by Labour in the 1970s, as well as some from the Eztion settlement bloc near Bethlehem.

A total of 380,000 Jews live in the West Bank, around 180,000 of them minors under voting age, figures from the Yesha Council show.

According to the UN`s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the West Bank has 135 Jewish settlements, all of which are viewed as illegal by the international community.