Jewish residents or the West Bank and Gaza have as much at stake in next week’s elections as any segment of the Israeli population.
Whether they will be allowed to stay in their homes or forced to move and whether they will live under Israeli or Palestinian sovereignty are among the critical questions that will most likely be decide by the government elected to power when Israelis go to the polls May 29.
Numbering an estimated 134,000, with less than half of them eligible to vote, the settlers in the territories constitute just a fraction of the electorate, with less voting power than such groups as Russian immigrants and Israeli Arabs.
Nonetheless, they receive a great deal of media attention, in part because of their uncertain status.
Although far form monolithic, the settlers who live in communities such as Efrat, Beit El and Kiryat Arba overwhelmingly would like to see the Labor Party removed form power, experts say.
Although no specific polls have been done on this population, Jewish settlers are expected to throw their support to Likud and parties to the right of Likud, including the National Religious Party and Moledet, a secular party that has advocated the transfer of Arabs, said Shmuel Sandler, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
Of Israel’s many minority groups, the settlers are arguably the least understood from a demographic standpoint, said Efraim Inbar, director of Bar- Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
“The perception is that we have a very religious, very ideological group here. But the statistics don’t bear this out,” he said.
Although the vast majority of settlers are right wing politically, Inbar said, “the majority do not define themselves as religious.”
About 45 percent are Orthodox or fervently Orthodox, 20 percent are traditional and 34 percent are secular, he said.
And despite the perception that a large percentage of the settlers come from English-speaking countries, “the percentage is surprisingly low,” he said.
Only 5.3 percent are form the United States or Canada; 4.3 percent are Western European; 5.5 percent are Russian immigrants; and the rest are native Israelis, he said.
As a group, he said, “one-quarter to one-third of the settlers can be considered ideologically motivated.”
“The others, while naturally concerned about their homes, moved to the territories for the lower price of housing, the quality of life and the convenience,” he said.
Given this diversity, Inbar said, “the settlers do not vote as one bloc. While the tendency is to favor right-wing parties, Labor also received votes in the past.”
However, most of those votes came from the estimated 15,000 residents of the Golan Heights, who are sometimes included in broader figures related to settlers.
Whether uncertainty over the fate of the settlements will erode Labor’s following among former supporters “is still unknown,” said Dov Orian, a Labor Party media liaison.
One sign that Labor considers the settler vote vital was last week’s surprise announcement that Yossi Beilin, a minister in the Labor government, and Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, a settler activist, had drafted an agreement stating that no settlements would be evacuated under any permanent-status agreement with the Palestinians.
The Yesha Council (the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza), which has endorsed Benjamin Netanyahu in the race for prime minister, condemned both Bin Nun’s meeting with Beilin, Israel’s most outspoken dove, and the agreement.
“Bin Bun represents only himself,” the council said.
Nor is Bin Nun the only settler leader to break ranks with Yesha and its policy against “unofficial” dialogue with either Israeli government officials or Palestinian representatives.
Last year, Yisrael Harel and Uri Elizur, two of Yesha’s leading activists, held several meetings with Palestinian officials to voice their opinions and to perhaps foster cooperation.
Then, as now, the council denounced the meetings, which were held under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee.
Those meetings indicated that even though the majority of settlers are expected to vote against the current government, there are differing views on how to approach relations with the Palestinians.
While some reject all talk of accommodation and compromise, others have take steps toward cooperation.
“We are neighbors. They live here, we live here. We are two communities,” said Harel, the chairman of the Yesha Council.
“We don’t intend to drive them out and they need to know that we are here to stay,” he said, adding, “We are determined to stick to our ideals and ideology.”
Harel said the meetings were halted when they were leaked to the media and his organization voted against such contacts.
But he holds out hope that dialogue could continue.
“We must find a way to end the dialogue of stones and start something more rational and humane,” he said.
Although Yesha claims otherwise, it appears that a significant minority of settlers might be prepared to relocate form their homes, given financial compensation.
According to a December 1995 opinion poll published by Bar-Ilan’s BESA Center, about 30 percent of the settlers, mainly young, secular families that have lived in the territories less than five years, expressed willingness to consider leaving their homes in exchange for “appropriate compensation” form the Israeli government.
On the flip side, 71 percent said they would be unwilling to relocate.
Of those asked whether they would “consider staying on the settlement as an Israeli citizen under Palestinian sovereignty” if a Palestinian state should rise in five to 10 years, 71 percent said no.
Despite their diversity and lack of unity on many issues, the one thing all settlers fear is a further deterioration of security.
“I would rather be thrown out of here than have to deal with the reality of living under Palestinian autonomy,” said a secular mother of four who spoke on condition of anonymity.
For Sara Fieldler, a resident of Nahliel, a religious settlement northwest of Ramallah, “the issue of personal safety is may main concern and I will be voting for those people who at least are not talking about giving up land.”
“What they will do when push comes to shove is another issue,” she said, noting that she intends to vote for Moledet.
While the future of their communities is certainly the central issue for settlers as the campaign season winds down, Yesha spokeswoman Yehudit Tayar said, “One of the most important concerns for Yesha members is the personal safety of the people of Israel.”
Israelis, she says, “are exhausted from the terrorist attacks, the war in Lebanon. People don’t know whether their husbands or wives will be blown up on a bus. We share these concerns.”
Although some Israelis see the settlers as a separate, isolated group, she said, “we ourselves don’t dissociate ourselves form other Israeli citizens.”
“Our concerns are their concerns,” she said. “We feel part and parcel of the Israeli people.”