With nine days to go until the elections, why would Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travel to the South Hebron Hills?It’s an isolated area of the West Bank with few voters, of whom many have previously supported his rival, Yamina Party head Naftali Bennett.In a way, it’s surprising Netanyahu went to the West Bank at all. His playing card throughout the elections has been Israel’s almost mythic ability to lead the world in inoculating its citizenry against COVID-19, a particularly impressive feat given that the Jewish state has no ability to produce the vaccines.The settlements issue, in contrast, has been his weakest selling point.During the last election, he pledged to annex the settlements, but then reneged on that promise in favor of normalization deals with four Arab nations under the rubric of the US-brokered Abraham Accords.He promised to authorize the outposts, but then was stymied by Alternative Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party. Out of all the right-wing party heads – Gideon Sa’ar of New Hope, Naftali Bennett of Yamina and Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionists – Netanyahu has the most centrist agenda when it comes to the settlements.
He supports a demilitarized Palestinian state and has never spoken in favor of Israeli retention of all of Area C of the West Bank.His right-wing rivals oppose a Palestinian state and would want to see Israel hold onto Area C of the West Bank. They have all made campaign trips to Judea and Samaria.The pot of settler voters is small: in the last campaign, it stood at 247,072, of which only 76% voted.Out of those, only 52% of the votes went to right-wing parties, with Netanyahu capturing 29.5% of the support and Yamina garnering 22.6% of the tally. Netanyahu is bolstered by support in two centrist leaning right-wing settlement cities – Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel – which traditionally contain the largest pockets of Likud support.Sa’ar’s New Hope Party is expected to pull voters from both Yamina and the Likud, making it even more unlikely that Netanyahu could bolster his numbers with a trip to the settlements.And once there, he has little to offer them compared to his rivals. With his support flagging by a mandate or two in the polls, however, Netanyahu turned in the direction of the settlements Sunday with a trip designed to highlight three messages.He visited the Gush Etzion region, whose communities fell to the Arab Legion in the 1948 War of Independence and which has symbolized in modern times the resurrection of Israel’s claim to Judea and Samaria.Then he made his first-ever trip to the South Hebron Hills as a prime minister, where he visited the site of a fifth-century synagogue to underscore both his understanding of the region’s ancient Jewish history and to renew his pledge never to uproot settlements, including isolated ones.Lastly, Netanyahu also made a campaign stop at an outpost to show he would increase Israel’s footprint in the West Bank and approve new settlements.The South Hebron Hills region portion of the trip was particularly aimed at Bennett, whose supporters he has always pilfered in the past. Historically, many of the South Hebron Hills residents have favored Bennett over Netanyahu.ONCE ON the campaign trail in the West Bank, Netanyahu’s strongest argument, however, was not about what the settlers could hope for, but rather what they could most fear – in this case, a government led by centrist politician Yair Lapid.His argument went like this:No matter how much more Bennett and Sa’ar can promise them, no matter what their track record is, the following are correct.They are unlikely to best Netanyahu on election day, and according to the polls, Lapid is the second largest vote-getter. His party believes in a two-state solution that includes only the settlement blocs, and would support the evacuation of isolated settlements such as in the South Hebron Hills.There are two choices before the voters; a Netanyahu-led government or a Lapid-led government.Should Bennett and Sa’ar not join Netanyahu’s government, they would have to go with Lapid. At the very best, they could stop him from achieving a two-state solution with only the blocs, but they could not promote a full fledged right-wing agenda for the settlements.The true factor that voters have to weigh when choosing a right-wing party is not its maximalist positions, but whether it can execute them.Bennett and Sa’ar can promise what they want, but they will not be able to fulfill that pledge, because neither of them are likely to come in either first or second place.In a contest between Netanyahu and Lapid, Netanyahu is a better choice for the right, because he believes in retaining all of Israel’s settlements and can execute that policy as long as he can form a right-wing government.It’s a point Netanyahu hammered home at each campaign stop in the settlements.But he failed to mention that a right-wing government under his leadership would still be limited by US President Joe Biden, who opposes settlement activity.So at best, those who support the settlements in this campaign can choose between a Lapid-led government that could uproot isolated settlements, or a Netanyahu government, which could work to retain all the settlements.For the Israeli pro-settlement right-wing voter, who just a year ago believed that sovereignty over the settlements was only months away, the election results are a loss no matter what the outcome.