The political winners and losers of the settler operation - analysis

The obvious losers were Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

 Police evacuate Settlers of the Nachala Settlement Movement from an open field near Kiryat Arba, after trying to establish illegal outposts in Judea and Samaria, July 20, 2022 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Police evacuate Settlers of the Nachala Settlement Movement from an open field near Kiryat Arba, after trying to establish illegal outposts in Judea and Samaria, July 20, 2022
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Thousands of settlers attempted to set up six encampments on Wednesday in an organized attempt by the Nahala Settlement Movement to “return the land to its people.” The move was also meant to protest Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s “abandoning [of] the land of the Jewish nation to the Arabs,” in the words of Nahala co-chair and settler leader Daniella Weiss.

Despite a statement from Gantz on Tuesday that security forces had been instructed to prevent what he said was illegal activity, the settlers managed to reach six different spots. Security forces evacuated five out of the six encampments overnight and used force when settlers, many of them youth, resisted.

By Thursday, only one encampment was left standing, known as Hilltop 26 opposite Kiryat Arba. Some 2,000 people had gathered there by Thursday afternoon and hundreds more were on their way in organized buses, according to a statement put out by Nahala.

What are the possible political ramifications of these events, and who are the political winners and losers?

Settler leaders and right-wing parties blamed the whole affair on Gantz and Prime Minister Yair Lapid for capitulating to US pressure by pledging to authorize six zoning plans for Palestinians in Area C. The settlers succeeded in capturing images of security forces violently arresting settlers, and used the brief attention to bash Gantz.

 Settler youth at Hilltop 26 near Kiryat Arba, one of the protest points for outpost settlement, July 21, 2022. (credit: NAHALA SETTLEMENT MOVEMENT) Settler youth at Hilltop 26 near Kiryat Arba, one of the protest points for outpost settlement, July 21, 2022. (credit: NAHALA SETTLEMENT MOVEMENT)

However, their actions raised the antagonism of the Left, especially Meretz MKs Mossi Raz, Michal Rozin and Gaby Lasky. They also drew the ire of Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev, who repeatedly stressed that the actions were illegal and argued that they were detrimental to Israel’s national security. Neither one of the sides emerged as clear winners.

On the other hand, the obvious losers were Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. The two do not see eye-to-eye on long-term solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and purposely did not mention the issue during the July 10 press conference when they announced the merger.

Since then, however, the Palestinian issue featured prominently twice – first after Gantz and Lapid wished Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas well on the occasion of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, and second during US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region last week.

The settlement drive succeeded in keeping the Palestinian issue in the headlines for the third time, and put the Gantz-Sa’ar party in an uncomfortable situation. Gantz’s goals in merging with Sa’ar were both to pass the ten-seat mark and to attempt to pull some moderate right-wing voters away from the Netanyahu bloc.

Since support for the settlements is a near-consensus amongst the Right, the two did not want to condemn the activity too strongly. On the other hand, neither could they express support for it. Gantz as Defense Minister could not undermine the IDF and Border Police who were tasked with preventing it, and Sa’ar as Justice Minister could not support illegal activity in any form.

Indeed, other than Gantz’s laconic warnings, the two party leaders and nearly all of their MKs remained silent on the issue, and did not speak about it publicly or on social media.

Ironically, despite her being a government partner of both Gantz and Sa’ar, Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked used the issue to chalk up a win. Shaked took full advantage of Gantz and Sa’ar’s silence and praised the settlers, sharing a video on Twitter of police officers using force against settler youth, who she wrote were “wonderful” and their actions “truly inspiring.”

Shaked, who is still searching for a clear electorate and campaign message, emerged as a supporter of the Right, and her comments may indicate the direction in which her party is headed.