Settlers have high hopes of Netanyahu win

High atop a rocky hill in the occupied West Bank, Israeli settlers exhilarated by a resounding right-wing election triumph surveyed a landscape dotted with Palestinian villages, scouting new spots to put down roots.

The November 1 ballot saw Religious Zionism, a hard-line settler party, soar to third place in parliament, positioning it as a potential powerful partner in Benjamin Netanyahu's likely coalition. Negotiations started on Sunday and could take weeks.

But among ideological settlers who see themselves as pioneers redeeming Biblical heartland promised by God, hopes are already high for budgets, construction and infrastructure to keep their enterprise thriving.

"Our expectations are great," said Daniella Weiss, a veteran settler who led the tiny scouting mission. "This government is better for the Jews than it is for the Arabs. That's the name of the game."

Weiss described the election results as a revolution. "As a person heading a settlement movement, it's a victory," she said. "I have no doubt there will be acceleration in development of the settlements."

Most world powers deem settlements built in the territory Israel seized in the 1967 war as illegal under international law and their expansion as an obstacle to peace, since they eat away at land the Palestinians claim for a future state.

With peace talks establishing for such state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem dormant since 2014, and with no sign of their revival, Netanyahu's likely government has simply darkened an already bleak Palestinian view.

"There will be an increase in settlement activity and that will close the door for any political solution," said Wasel Abu Youssef of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Israel disputes the illegality of the settlements and cites Biblical and historical ties to the West Bank, which it calls by its Biblical name - Judea and Samaria.

"I sense a chill down my spine coming back to the very places where my ancestors lived," said Baruch Gordon from the settlement of Bet El, where Religious Zionism election banners dot the streets.

"It's our ancestral rightful homeland," said Gordon, who hopes to see Israel extending sovereignty to the territory, which would be a de-facto annexation.

More than 450,000 people, or less than 5 per cent of Israel's population, are Jewish settlers in the West Bank, home to about 3 million Palestinians who exercise limited self-rule there.

Settlers driven ideologically to the smaller enclaves, deep in the territory, are a minority of the settler population. But they are nonetheless a powerful political force, in Netanyahu's Likud party too.

At the Bet El religious seminary, where Gordon works as development director, the male students broke out in song and dance on election night, when the results came through.

About 80 per cent of Bet El's votes went to Religious Zionism, data from the Knesset's election committee showed, and almost 10 per cent to Netanyahu's Likud.

Set for a record sixth term in office, Netanyahu has allied himself with Religious Zionism, which advocates annexation of settlements, a pledge he made in 2020 before dropping it in return for normalising ties with the United Arab Emirates.

That deal, extended soon after to Bahrain, was mediated by former US President Donald Trump, whose administration saw Netanyahu's 2015-2019 solid right-wing government increasing investment in settlement development.

With the Biden administration, which has been far sharper in its stance against settlements, Netanyahu will have to walk a tightrope between his own emerging coalition and the White House.

But settlers are unfazed. Yigal Dilmoni, chief executive of the settlers' main umbrella organisation, said he expected Netanyahu to step up settlement development while cracking down on Palestinian construction carried out without Israeli permits.

Netanyahu, said Dilmoni, was an astute statesman capable of sorting out any related diplomatic rift, adding that in any case, annexation was merely a matter of time.

"If it doesn't happen tomorrow morning, it will happen in 10 or 15 years. We're in no rush," said Dilmoni.