MIDDLE EAST

Netanyahu's election rhetoric in Israel may help rein in settler movement

Israeli settlements have been a near-constant source of friction between Netanyahu and Obama

Set in rocky hills just half an hour's drive east of the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv, this Jewish settlement has the air of a placid suburb. Mothers with baby carriages chat outside the dry cleaner. A delivery truck pulls up to the supermarket's loading dock. The neat recycling bins are nearly full.

It was nearly 40 years ago that the first small band of settlers arrived here, laying claim to a raw hilltop a couple of miles inside territory seized by Israel in the 1967 war with its Arab neighbors. Today, the community they named after the father of the biblical Samuel is home to nearly 4,000 Israeli Jews.

Almost everyone here is pleased with the outcome of last week's national election, which virtually guarantees that the next government will continue to be led by Benjamin Netanyahu, joined in his coalition by a constellation of mostly right-wing allies, including the pro-settlement party Jewish Home.

People expect the new leadership will be good for Elkana.

"We hope there will be more homes now, and more building, which we need," said Shula Granik, 58, who raised a family here. Now her grown children are married and live in Elkana with their own children.

More than 350,000 Israeli Jews reside in about 200 settlements scattered across the West Bank, the heartland of what the Palestinians hope will be their future state. Netanyahu was lagging in the polls as he headed into last week's vote, and many commentators believe a well-organized mobilization of settler voters helped turn the tide, handing the prime minister a solid victory over his center-left rivals.

On the eve of the election, the Israeli leader — in comments he has since sought to soften — declared that no Palestinian state would be created while he remained in office, and promised as well to increase the pace of Jewish construction in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their capital.

Days before the vote, according to Israeli news reports, Netanyahu warned settler leaders that unless they backed him and his Likud Party, they could face catastrophe because his opponents would capitulate under pressure from the international community, which considers the settlements illegal under international law.

"Netanyahu looked those present in the eye and told them the truth: I am facing defeat," Ben Caspit wrote in the daily newspaper Maariv, summarizing what was said in the closed-door session. "If I lose, you should start packing.... The left wing will come to power and the settlements will either be removed or dry up. The only chance of holding on to the settlements is to keep me in power."

Yet a counterintuitive new narrative is beginning to emerge: The prime minister's inflammatory rhetoric just before the vote may actually strengthen the hand of those hoping to rein in the settler movement, which has long wielded outsized political clout in a country of more than 8 million.

Palestinian officials, together with many Western governments, had long suspected that Netanyahu, who had previously endorsed a two-state solution in principle, had no intention of negotiating an accord that would cede any significant amount of West Bank territory to the Palestinians. Now some settlement opponents believe the prime minister has rendered Israel's incoming government more vulnerable to calls from within and without to give up at least some of the settlements.

"My hope is that if the [settlement] policy is going to be as we expect, the political price will be higher," said Hagit Ofran, who heads the Settlement Watch project for the Israeli group Peace Now. "And my hope is that the pressure from the opposition in Israel and from other friends of Israel around the world will make the life of the next government harder."

The Palestinians have already signaled that they will use international forums, including the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, to bring statehood pressure to bear. The White House has suggested that a Netanyahu-led government can no longer count on the diplomatic cover the U.S. has provided in venues such as the Security Council, where resolutions unfavorable to Israel have been routinely blocked.

The settlements have been a near-constant source of friction between the prime minister and President Obama, whose relationship has deteriorated dramatically in recent months, particularly after Netanyahu defied White House wishes and lobbied a joint session of Congress against the administration's efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Iran.

Netanyahu's attempt to walk back his repudiation of a negotiated two-state solution, delivered Thursday in a round of interviews with U.S. news outlets, were met with skepticism in Washington. European governments, already exasperated with what they view as the prime minister's intransigence on settlements and other issues, are now considered likelier to look for ways to penalize the Netanyahu government for new construction in the West Bank.

Settlement proponents, though, describe the Israeli presence in the West Bank as a crucial line of defense as the region is roiled by the rise of violent Islamist militant groups, including Islamic State. At its narrowest point, Israel is only 10 miles wide, and settlements occupy strategic high ground.

"Our presence in the government is all the more important in light of ongoing upheaval throughout this volatile region," Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home party, wrote in a preelection blog post.

During the prime minister's last six years in office, population in the settlements grew at a pace roughly double that of the general population, according to government figures. Netanhayu and his allies describe much of that as "natural growth" that has taken place within settlement blocs lying close to the pre-1967 border, considered likely be part of land swaps that would accompany a negotiated peace accord.

But groups such as Peace Now argue that the prime minister's policies over the last six years have already done lasting damage to Palestinians' statehood prospects. Officially, no new settlements were to be established after the 1992 Oslo accords, but Netanyahu moved to give retroactive government authorization to 19 "outposts," many of them deep in the West Bank, according to the settlement watchdog group Yesh Din.

Palestinians say that the staking of settler claims far from the 1967 border is meant to turn the West Bank into an archipelago, undermining prospects for a viable and contiguous state.

Israel denies that it is engaging in such a strategy, but settlement opponents seized on a preelection statement by Netanyahu during a visit to the neighborhood of Har Homa on the outskirts of Jerusalem, whose construction he approved in 1997, during his first term as prime minister.

Speaking on the eve of the vote, the prime minister asserted that Har Homa, which is considered a settlement by the international community, had successfully blocked Palestinian "continuation" between East Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Although settlers responded to Netanyahu's call to shore up his Likud Party at the polls, many complain that the prime minister has not allowed enough settlement construction, and intend to exert pressure for more. At Elkana, where 156 new homes are to be built under tenders published this year, Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home party, is a far more popular figure than the prime minister.

After his election win, Netanyahu was quick to telegraph his indebtedness to the settler movement, declaring that his first call to another party leader would be to Bennett, who may be given a major Cabinet post such as foreign minister.

Elkana, lying as close as it does to the pre-1967 border, is all but certain to be made part of Israel in any peace accord. But Palestinians living nearby say the settlement has blighted their lives and livelihoods.

In the Palestinian village of Masha, on whose land Elkana was partially built, Hani Amer's house ended up on the wrong side of the Israeli barrier constructed to protect the settlement. The Israeli military allows him and his family to use a gate in the wall to reach the village, he said, but he lost farmland that had been in his family for generations.

Isolated from relatives and friends, the family must obtain military permission to have any visitors, he said. But like other Palestinians living in the shadow of settlements across the West Bank, Amer said he had nowhere else to go.

"This is my land and this is my home," he said. "I am staying here, no matter what."

Special correspondents Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem and Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.

Twitter: @laurakingLAT

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