The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

Israel passed a controversial law about settlements. Where did its parliament get the support?

Devorah Manekin and Guy Grossman, The Washington Post, February 13, 2017

An Israeli soldier stands guard in a monitoring cabin in the Israeli settlement of Beit El near the West Bank city of Ramallah on Jan. 25. (Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Last week, Israel’s parliament passed a law allowing the state to seize private Palestinian land on which Jewish settlements have been constructed and transfer it to the settlements’ exclusive use. The law could retroactively legalize several thousand homes of Jewish settlers and suspend any demolition proceedings previously initiated against them. Israel’s legal establishment has announced its opposition to the new law, saying it violates Israeli and international law and could lead to international repercussions. Israel’s president also came out against the law, arguing that it would “make Israel look like an apartheid state.” The law already has come under heavy criticism from several of Israel’s allies and has been challenged in Israel’s High Court, where it could eventually be overturned.

Yet despite these far-reaching political implications, the law was backed by Israel’s entire ruling coalition, with only one dissenting member. Even the Kulanu party, which bills itself as a moderate, pragmatic party, voted for the law, leading to a final count of 60 in favor, 52 against. What explains this widespread support?

Our own research, co-written with Tamar Mitts of Columbia University, sheds light on how a minority of voters can have an outsize influence on controversial policies that may carry a heavy cost.

Traditionally, analysts of Israeli politics contended that the Israeli right is split over control of the West Bank. The first, more ideological, camp is attached to the land for religious and symbolic reasons, viewing the land of Israel as God-given to the Jewish people and therefore indivisible. A second, more pragmatic camp supports territorial control over the West Bank for security reasons. According to this latter view, it is essential for Israel to hold onto the West Bank until a viable and credible peace deal is on the table.

The distribution of voters across this divide has considerable policy implications: If the pragmatic camp is sufficiently large, a bargaining space exists that allows leaders to negotiate land for peace. If, however, the ideological camp dominates, such a bargaining space between Israeli and Palestinian leaders narrows substantially.

Our study, based on surveys of more than 3,000 Jewish adults, was explicitly designed to measure the relative size of these camps. We found, first, that about 53 percent of our respondents supported deepening control over the West Bank through settlement expansion, while about 47 percent supported a settlement freeze. Those who opposed settlement expansion thought it would lead to increased violence and escalate the conflict, but, perhaps surprisingly, many who supported settlement expansion generally thought the same thing.

What could motivate a majority of the public to support a policy of expansion that they thought was likely to worsen the security situation? Using multiple experimental methods to disentangle strategic motivations from symbolic ones, we found that a majority of right-wing respondents (about 55 percent) would prefer to deepen Israeli control of the West Bank even if that meant violence would increase substantially, the economy would be severely harmed, and funding for health and education would be reduced to enable military expansion.

Thus, while the Israeli right does in fact appear divided, the majority of its constituents, approximately 30 percent to 40 percent of the general Jewish-Israeli public, could be classified as ideologues, prioritizing control over the West Bank over security and material considerations.

These findings suggest that Israel’s ideological right is not a radical fringe but a substantial segment of the public. Nevertheless, it remains a minority. Why, then, is it able to exercise such powerful influence on the Israeli leadership? Our research offers one answer to this puzzle: ideological voters are not concentrated at the far right, as many commentators assume, but rather vote for parties across the right-wing political spectrum. Consequently, Israel’s political leadership is constrained not by its coalition partners at the far right but by voters that form its core base.

Our findings are reinforced by public opinion polls on the Land Confiscation Law. One such poll not only found that 82 percent of voters for Israel’s Jewish Home party supported the law — as would be expected — but that 62 percent of Likud voters and 64 percent of Kulanu voters supported it as well.

Given such public attitudes, it is not surprising that Israel’s politicians have used symbolic rhetoric to justify the law. Speaking on behalf of the government on the evening of the vote, Israel’s Science and Technology Minister and Likud member Ofir Akunis stated, “The argument tonight is about who this land belongs to, and about our basic right to the land. … We are voting about the connection between the Jewish people and its land. I am happy that the public believes in us and not in [the opposition], meaning that it too believes that the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.”

Of course, public opinion is not immutable, nor does it necessarily restrict an elected leadership. However, it does pose a substantial constraint on policymakers in democratic settings, who risk losing part of their base if they defy it. At present, it appears that the Israeli leadership isn’t willing to take that risk, even at the cost of international repercussions, its strategic interests and violations of basic rights.

Devorah Manekin is an assistant professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s International Relations Department.

Guy Grossman is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Political Science.