Why Some Voters in 'Settler Heartland' Are Ready to Turn Their Backs on Netanyahu

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Uri Bank next to his mini-billboard for New Hope leader Gideon Sa'ar.
Uri Bank next to his mini-billboard for New Hope leader Gideon Sa'ar.Credit: Emil Salman

Jay and Dena Bailey have supported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his entire political career. “We loved Bibi all the way up until the last election,” Dena says. “On international matters, there’s been nobody better. He’s been good on security and terrorism, and great on the economy.”

A look around the Bailey family’s hometown – the affluent West Bank settlement city of Efrat – helps explain why. The long line of Netanyahu-led governments has been generous to the red-roofed neighborhoods stretching across seven hilltops, named for the biblical seven species: figs, grapes, pomegranates, dates, olives, palms and grain. The city’s mayor, Oded Revivi, is a longtime Netanyahu supporter. 

Efrat was co-founded in 1983 by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the former spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, and from its founding has been a soft landing place for Modern Orthodox immigrants. More than half of its 10,000 residents are educated English-speaking newcomers who have thrived in the high-tech industry and been able to hold onto lucrative jobs or businesses in the “old country” while they realize their Zionist dream. 

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Development of the city – the de facto capital of Gush Etzion, and the bloc all Israeli governments consider part of the West Bank which they will never abandon – continues apace. Construction cranes are everywhere and the sounds of building ring out in the background as the Baileys talk to Haaretz in their new apartment, which features a breathtaking view. The couple recently downsized to the modern new tower from one of the red-roofed houses after their children fled the nest.  

Moving home isn’t the only change they have been going through this year. The Baileys’ political views have shifted as well, as Israel heads into its fourth election in just over two years on March 23.

This time around, they say, they are both hoping to put an end to Netanyahu’s stint as prime minister. Like many of their neighbors in this affluent Netanyahu stronghold, they say they have had enough.

“Bibi fatigue” has seemingly set in here – though that’s not reflected in opinion polls, which see Netanyahu’s Likud as the largest party by some distance in the next Knesset. 

For Jay Bailey, 50, Netanyahu’s capitulation to ultra-Orthodox leaders regarding the coronavirus pandemic was the last straw. He was infuriated to see the Haredi communities flout rules and restrictions as infection rates soared in their communities and the country’s hospitals buckled under the strain while “Bibi didn’t stand up to them even once.”

Netanyahu’s dependence on them, he concludes, “has become toxic. That baggage has become too heavy.” 

His wife Dena, 48, adds that she was disturbed by the “bad atmosphere” created by Netanyahu’s machinations regarding his rotation agreement with Benny Gantz. While she didn’t vote for the Kahol Lavan leader, she saw him as having gone into a coalition government with noble intentions and, in her eyes, had been treated in an “evil and malicious” way by Netanyahu.

It confirmed her growing sense that the premier was making his decisions based on what benefits him, disregarding what is good for the country. “The ego thing has just gotten to be too much,” Dena says.

Jay and Dena Bailey at their home in the settlement of Efrat.Credit: Emil Salman

Pain, no gain

Voters like the Baileys feel they now have the ability to turn away from Netanyahu without feeling like they are betraying the right-wing camp. Both Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina parties are making a direct appeal to those who support Likud’s policies but are turned off by Netanyahu’s complete dominance of his party.

“Right-wingers are finally willing to say that Bibi has become more of a hindrance to the country instead of a benefit,” says Uri Bank, a veteran Gush Etzion political operative. “Before this election, if you wanted to come out against Bibi, you had to stop and worry about being called a left-winger,” the 52-year-old adds. 

Bank, who moved with his family to Israel from the United States as a child, is working to take full advantage of what he sees as a “tipping point,” managing the Gush Etzion campaign for Sa’ar’s new party. In these pandemic-ridden times, his base of operations is his home in Neveh Daniel, a satellite settlement to Efrat with a population of just over 2,300, many of them immigrants. 

Notably, just weeks before the March 23 election, Bank’s home is the only one in the settlement with a campaign banner hung prominently – a phenomena repeated throughout Gush Etzion. He is working to change that, offering New Hope signs to anyone willing to display one from their window. 

“It’s important for people here to see that at least one of their neighbors supports New Hope,” he explains as his car heads out to the edge of town, past a bright yellow metal security gate to the illegal outpost outside the settlement known as Sde Boaz. Driving past the organic farms in the outpost, Bank discusses his long résumé, which covers the spectrum of nearly every right-wing party in Israel. In recent years, Bank spent time inside the world of Likud as an aide to Yehudah Glick, the Temple Mount activist-turned-politician ousted in the Likud primary. 

Uri Bank outside his home in the Neveh Daniel neighborhood of Efrat, a settlement in the West Bank. Credit: Emil Salman

Sa’ar, who is secular, seems like an out-of-the-box choice for a kippa-wearing, right-wing ideologue whose self-declared top political priorities are settlement growth and the regularization of illegal outposts. But he says the longtime Likudnik’s credentials on settlements are solid, and that Sa’ar is the only force on the right who is a viable alternative to Netanyahu. 

If Bennett and Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich were running together on a joint ticket, things would be different. But with the religious camp fractured “Sa’ar is our most realistic option” for the dual goals of unseating Netanyahu but keeping the right in power.  

“New Hope isn’t just a play on words,” Bank says. “It aptly describes someone like me, who’s coming from the ideological right. I’m saying that what we have is not good enough anymore. We have to replace Netanyahu. We have to retire him and need new leadership.” 

Bank says he is unafraid of the bogeyman Netanyahu is highlighting in his campaign: the prospect of Saar joining with centrist Yair Lapid and bringing in left-wing parties. “Yes, we’ll have to build a coalition with elements from the left wing, just as Netanyahu did,” he concedes. “So we’re going to have to compromise. But our starting point is strong. … I don’t think Saar will allow Lapid or other coalition members to veto everything he believes in when it comes to settlements and reform of the judicial system. Look, we know we’re not going to get the whole cake, but we’re going to get a good chunk of it,” he adds. 

He’s optimistic this will be possible because “the Palestinian issue has been on the back burner for a while” and “the world has moved on,” he says. “It will be easier now for Lapid and the Labor Party to work together with Sa’ar and Bennett, because the dividing issue is a nonissue now. We don’t have a partner – so at some point we’re going to do some form of expanding sovereignty. It may only be over Gush Etzion and Ma’aleh Adumim [a settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem] at first, it might be all of Area C [the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control], but we can move the ship in the right direction.” 

Dr. Emmanuel Navon is also playing his part to replace Netanyahu, and support Sa’ar, from his book-lined Efrat home. Raised in Paris, he moved to Israel in 1993 to pursue his academic career, and today teaches political science at Tel Aviv University and Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center. He is also affiliated with two right-leaning think tanks: the Jerusalem Institute of Strategy and Security, and the Kohelet Policy Forum.

Navon, 50, arrived in the country as a classic European liberal, but shifted right and joined Likud after the second intifada in the early 2000s and after being “horrified by Oslo.” A free marketeer, Navon says he appreciated Netanyahu’s push toward privatization as finance minister, and was active enough in the party to – unsuccessfully – run for the “immigrants slot” on the Knesset slate in the 2012 party primary. 

But over the years, he recounts, he increasingly became disenchanted with Netanyahu. He was friendly with Sa’ar and was impressed “by the way he stood up to Netanyahu” when the premier attempted to deny the presidency to Reuven Rivlin in 2015. “Gideon was the only one who told Bibi that this was not a banana republic. And that’s what got him on the blacklist of Balfour,” he says, referring to the prime minister’s official residence. 

Navon quit the party in disgust in 2015 after Netanyahu took the country to early elections – only renewing his Likud membership last year to vote for Sa’ar in the party primary.  

Likud has become “a North Korean party” full of “spineless people who suck up to Netanyahu” even though he “completely despises them,” Navon asserts. “Netanyahu has become the ultimate status quo leader: remaining prime minister is the only thing he cares about.”

If Netanyahu continues to fail to get a clear majority, Navon fears “he will keep us in endless elections so he can remain interim prime minister indefinitely.”

Dr. Emmanuel Navon next to an ad for the New Hope party.Credit: Emil Salman

French lesson

Navon is doing what he can to advise and assist Sa’ar, who he believes has “principles and courage.” In that role, he has taken on the challenging task of holding Zoom sessions for French immigrants to Israel, who, he says, tend to be “Bibi-ists” that idolize Netanyahu and view him as irreplaceable.

“They can’t differentiate between criticizing Netanyahu and criticizing Israel,” sighs Navon, who holds sessions for English speakers as well. Making the case for change after 15 years, Navon uses a comparison he hopes the French can appreciate: Charles de Gaulle, a national war hero and great statesman who nonetheless overstayed his welcome as president.

“I’m the first one to say [Netanyahu’s] done great things in the past – but he’s lost it. He’s been doing a terrible job for the last two years. Do we really want him to be our prime minister for 19 years?” he asks.

Navon’s wife, Sima, 51, who moved to Israel from Staten Island, says her views have not always matched up with her husband’s. She’s a religious Zionist who grew up in the Bnei Akiva movement, and continued voting for Netanyahu well after her husband grew disillusioned. “We rarely agree on anything,” she says, laughing. “He’s intellectual and I’m emotional.” But now, after having spent so many years “trusting” Netanyahu – until his indictment on corruption charges – she finally agrees with her husband that it’s time for him to go. 

“I’ve come to realize he can’t be prime minister when he has these court cases going on,” she says. “He’s a talented politician. He’s making decisions and all of his actions are being taken in order to keep himself out of jail, to the detriment of the country and the people. He’s holding the country hostage because he wants to be reelected. I’m just not interested in him being my prime minister anymore.”

And so, though it has been “painful,” she stopped voting for Likud. “I think Gideon Sa’ar would make an excellent prime minister,” Sima Navon says. “I think he’s the only person in government today who can form a government that doesn’t include Bibi. I think he’s intelligent and has morals, which is important to me.”

On another Efrat hillside, Jessica Levine Kupferberg recalls growing up in Los Angeles watching Bibi with admiration as he articulately and convincingly made Israel’s case on television. 

But these days, the 47-year-old says she feels “disillusioned” over what she sees as Netanyahu’s “flip-flopping” on COVID management and unwillingness to take responsibility for its failures. 

And, she says, she isn’t alone. 

“There are a lot of people who were pro-Bibi who are done with him. The time feels ripe for some sort of change. There’s something decaying there,” she says.

Kupferberg is a former lawyer and the mother of five whose family moved from California to Efrat in 2014. In the short time she has lived in Israel, security concerns have been foremost in her mind when voting because “Bethlehem is in our backyard – right over there,” she says, pointing.  

In the past, like the majority of Gush Etzion voters, she has voted for Bennett and his various right-wing incarnations, feeling he had the best positions on security. This time, though, she’s considering either Bennett or Sa’ar. Netanyahu isn’t an option. “I really could be a Likudnik, but I don’t like Bibi,” she says. “I think he did a great job getting us the vaccine and he has great political skills. But I don’t like that he never has groomed a successor for himself. When he says ‘Only Bibi,’ he really means ‘Only Bibi’ – I don’t think it’s healthy for a democracy when it’s a one-man show.” When she surveys the field, Kupferberg concludes there is an “embarrassment of riches” for a right-wing, security-minded voter, a buffet of options. 

She sits alongside her friend Sara Tesler, a 40-year-old Bible educator who made aliyah from Riverdale five years ago. Tesler considers herself well to her neighbor’s left politically, and is more confused as to whom she should vote for this time around. 

David and Sara Tesler.Credit: Emil Salman

In the past three elections Tesler supported Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party and hung a campaign sign on her house – a move that was not welcomed by her neighbors, “who got angry. They were asking, ‘Who are these horrible Americans?’” 

She doesn’t believe there would be a similar reaction if she hung a sign supporting New Hope and Sa’ar. He “appears to be ‘kosher,’” she smiles. “Because right and left mean something different here in Israel than back home, I haven’t found a political niche yet,” she says. Likud is out of the question because of the way it is inextricably tied to the ultra-Orthodox and Netanyahu’s “fear tactics,” she notes.

Instead, she is leaning toward Sa’ar, though she recently read an interview with Bennett and says she was impressed. “Bennett has distanced himself from the extremes, become more centrist and so seems more appealing to me than ever before. But his positions on the peace process still bother me.”

Her husband, David, 47, who runs his real estate business in the U.S. long-distance, plans to vote for Bennett. “I don’t know if any other leader could have handled the vaccines as well as Bibi did, but that isn’t a reason to vote for him,” he says. He also thinks there’s a high likelihood Bennett will join a Netanyahu-led government.

Trust issues

A 15-minute drive east, through the Judean Hills and a Palestinian village, is the settlement of Tekoa – also part of the Gush Etzion regional council but a different vibe than Efrat. Tekoa also has a significant number of English-speaking immigrants among its “founding fathers” from the 1970s and ’80s. It has a reputation for being free-wheeling and less conventional and conformist than Efrat; religious and secular live side by side here. 

Laura Ben-David, a photographer and marketing consultant, and divorced mother of six originally from Boca Raton, Florida, relaxes sipping coffee – a dramatic view of Herodian on one side of her home and a Chabad yeshiva across the street.

Laura Ben-David at her home in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa.

“I used to be a big Bibi supporter. I felt he was strong, articulate, not afraid to take a stand – I liked his speeches at the UN about Iran. He showed leadership and I trusted him. I don’t trust him anymore,” she says. 

In the previous elections, Ben-David was part of the minority in town who voted Kahol Lavan. But, like many of her friends, she isn’t sure who to vote for this time. “I probably won’t until I’m in the voting booth,” she admits.

Unlike Ben-David, who moved to Tekoa from Neveh Daniel two years ago, Tzvi Cooper is an old-timer. He came to Tekoa 21 years ago, four years after immigrating to Israel from California, evolving from a yeshiva student to a senior executive at Intel, retired early, and is now an investor and startup entrepreneur. Over time he has watched his settlement grow from 85 families on a hilltop to a town of 1,200 families.

Cooper, 61, is highly critical of Netanyahu, who “sold out” the settlers just as previous Likud leaders did, he says. In the last three elections, he has voted for Yamina, with various degrees of enthusiasm, and presumes he will do so again. Bennett “may or may not be effective – but he hasn’t sold us out.” The Yamina politician he admires most, though, is Ayelet Shaked, who he sees as wholesome and righteous. “She’s really the one wearing the pants in Bennett’s party. I see her as truly focused on making social change,” he says. 

Cooper has little faith in Israeli leadership as a whole, though “sometimes I think it’s because Israelis are completely ungovernable – I think the coronavirus may have proved that.”

As for Sa’ar, he is “an untested commodity” who “says the right things” to the settler right, but “he’s only ever been an underling so we don’t know how strong his backbone is. Can we trust him? I don’t know.”

Unlike many Israelis, Cooper says he doesn’t fear the prospect of the parties failing to form a stable coalition, which could lead to yet another election. “I’m all for gridlock. You can’t give away land if you’re in gridlock,” he states.

Tzvi Cooper at his home in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa.

New York-born Bobby Brown, a famous founding father of Tekoa who settled there in 1979 when it was a remote outpost, remains a loyal Netanyahu supporter, but says he understands why fellow travelers like Cooper are disaffected.

Brown, in his late 60s and a former Netanyahu adviser, relates to Cooper’s “disappointment” that the prime minister abandoned the push for annexation and other settlement sovereignty issues that are so important to settlers. 

While Brown says he has “love and respect” for Netanyahu’s challengers, he believes that the prime minister is, in fact, irreplaceable. 

“I don’t see anyone who can do the job the way Bibi does,” he says, reeling off Netanyahu’s accomplishments: procuring and distributing COVID vaccines; the pre-COVID economy; the “high-tech miracle”; security; and advocating vigorously on the Iran issue. 

“I think Bibi was right on the issue of Iran,” Brown says. “He confronted the American government at a time it didn’t want to be confronted, and he won that fight.”

In a way, he says, Netanyahu is a victim of his own success – swaying public opinion to the extent that “we’re in a very strange period in which the right is completely dominant in Israeli politics and the left has almost collapsed.”

That fact has taken away Netanyahu’s perennial powerful campaign argument: that voting is a choice between him and a “weak” and “dangerous” left-wing government.

“We’re all voting with questions this time,” Brown admits. “But in the end, you have to make the best of what you have. With Bibi, we know we’ll be an essentially right-wing government. With others, we don’t know what we’ll be.”

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