Leadership Race Reveals Ideological Cracks in Israel's West Bank Settlement Movement

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Contenders to head Israel's settler movement the Yesha Council: (L) Karnei Shomron Mayor Yigal Lahav, (C) Effi Eitam, a former cabinet member, (R) Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi
Contenders to head Israel's settler movement the Yesha Council: (L) Karnei Shomron Mayor Yigal Lahav, (C) Effi Eitam, a former cabinet member, (R) Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi Credit: Seth Shelfan, Eyal Toueg and Emily Semo

More than two months have passed since the chairman of the umbrella organization of the Israeli settlement movement, the Yesha Council of Settlements, Avi Roeh, announced his resignation. For two months the members of the council, heads of West Bank settlements, could not find a replacement. Underlying this is an internal struggle which embodies, to a large extent, a struggle between different worldviews within the settler movement as well as personal differences between some of its senior members.

Three candidates are vying for this post, and on Monday the council directorate, comprised of heads of local councils in the occupied territories and senior figures in the settlement movement, is slated to decide who will take over. Leading the pack is Effi Eitam, a former cabinet member and part of the old National Religious Party. He was the search committee’s first choice. The other two are Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi and Karnei Shomron Mayor Yigal Lahav.

Eitam was a surprising choice. He heads a private company that extracts oil from shale rock and does not intend to quit this job. He belongs to the historic National Religious Party, where he was considered its most right-wing element. He once belonged to a secular kibbutz, and people around him say he’s become more moderate in recent years. He doesn’t live in the West Bank but in the Golan Heights, and his involvement with a private company and place of residence raised some eyebrows at the Yesha Council when his candidacy was announced.

Some people claim it was not by chance that his name was pulled out of cold storage.

FILE PHOTO: Yesha Council wheeler and dealer Ze'ev (`Zambish') HeverCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

Sources in the Yesha Council said a small drama occurred when it turned out that Ze’ev Hever — a senior figure in the settlement movement, a member of the search committee and the head of the settlement construction organization Amana — was soon to become Eitam’s son-in-law, after proposing to Eitam’s daughter. As a result, Hever left the room when discussions turned to Eitam. “Hever is always in the thick of things, he knows the area best. He comes and goes freely at the prime minister’s residence,” said one source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Others say Hever tried to promote Eitam for reasons not strictly connected to the matter at hand. “People won’t fall into that trap,” said one council head. “I just heard about this and I hope that it’s false information and that this wasn’t the reason Eitam was promoted,” said another council head. Other people denied charges of nepotism. Eitam declined to be interviewed. “I have nothing to say. If it comes about I’ll think of something to say.”

Eitam’s candidacy came from a wish not to appoint one of the local council heads for the job, one year before scheduled council elections. Search committee members said that one can’t be head of the Yesha Council and a local council head at the same time. One local council head expressed dissatisfaction with the search committee’s decision to exclude council heads.

Nevertheless, Eitam’s rivals are both local council heads. Lahav is secular, relatively new at his post and considered something of an outsider. He claims that he’s interested in practical issues such as developing infrastructure, not in ideology and in making excuses for living in the West Bank.

Revivi is already involved in the Yesha Council, as its international liaison. He is considered close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has not attacked him directly, as other council heads frequently do, for being insufficiently supportive. Revivi’s supporters say ties with politicians are very important, especially with budgets being so tight.

The contenders are not campaigning openly and seem to feign indifference, although at least one is campaigning more aggressively behind the scenes. There are fine ideological differences between them, with Lahav more to the right and Revivi more centrist.

The candidates will appear before the Yesha Council on Monday and express their views on various topics, but there is some doubt that a final decision will be made. The process may drag on until local elections next year and it’s possible that a new candidate will emerge in the wake of the media coverage of Eitam.