BEIT EL, West Bank (AP) _ Aryeh and Odedia Saraf, Jewish residents of this West Bank settlement for nine years, took their jubilant family out to dinner to celebrate the apparent victory of Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
``We feel like this is salvation,″ Aryeh, a security guard in his late 30s, said with a grin. ``We are happy.″
Ten-year-old son David proudly wore a Netanyahu sticker on his T-shirt and waved an Israeli flag on Thursday as the family walked to a restaurant at the entrance to the settlement for sandwiches in pita bread.
Their joy reflected widespread relief among Jewish settlers at the apparent end to four years of rule by the Labor Party, which froze construction of settlements and appeared poised to give Palestinians most of the West Bank if re-elected.
Odedia said she was afraid that with Netanyahu only barely ahead after Wednesday’s vote _ absentee ballots had yet to be counted _ Prime Minister Shimon Peres, a supporter of the settlers who became their nemesis, might pull off a comeback.
``I’m afraid to hope for better because of the misery we went through under the current government,″ she said.
Many of the settlers in this community and others scattered in the West Bank hilltops are religious Jews who feel that the territory captured in 1967, the heart of ancient Israel, is their biblical birthright.
Since Yitzhak Rabin won elections in 1992, the 140,000 West Bank settlers _ and about 5,000 in the Gaza Strip _ have watched with increasing dismay as the government pursued peace with the Palestinians.
The 1993 Israel-PLO accord set the framework for the establishment of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. In 1994, Israel pulled out of Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho. The stiffest blow came last year, as Israel handed over all major West Bank cities, and 27 percent of its land, to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.
The settlers feared the process would lead to the Palestinians getting full statehood, and perhaps even the uprooting of settlements.
But the Labor Party was hesitant to speed up the process _ and if Peres is indeed to be replaced by Netanyahu, such dangers appear to be much diminished.
``I feel like my home is safe,″ said Noa Lewis, a mother of two in Beit El, after learning of the election results.
The Likud Party leader has suggested he might try to settle another half-million Jews in the West Bank, making nearly impossible any future withdrawal from the territory where about 1.2 million Palestinians live.
However, Israel Harel, chairman of the Yesha Settlers Council, doubts Netanyahu will actually do that.
``I don’t think Mr. Netanyahu will make dramatic changes by establishing new settlements, but nonetheless he is going to lift the embargo, the drought,″ he said.
Harel said the council had its own plans to invest $4 million over the next five years to expand the settlements. ``Our main goal (is) that our homeland will not be divided again and won’t become Palestinian territory,″ he said.
There is also uncertainty about whether Netanyahu will honor Peres’ commitment to pull out of most of Hebron, the last Arab city in the West Bank still under Israeli occupation.
While Netanyahu has said he will honor agreements already reached, he is known to oppose the Hebron withdrawal as dangerous for the 450 settlers who live among the town’s 94,000 Palestinians.
The mayor of Hebron urged Peres today to pull the troops out before any government change.
``We have fears that the peace process will not move as we wish,″ if Netanyahu takes over, Mayor Mustafa Natche told The Associated Press. ``Maybe the next government will hesitate and postpone.″
There was no immediate comment from Peres’ office on Natche’s appeal.
David Levy, a key Netanyahu ally, said Thursday that a Likud government would avoid any action that might endanger the settlers in Hebron.
The settlers are not all set against Peres.
One group, let by relative moderate Yoel Ben-Nun, had supported him on the strength of a proposal to annex to Israel a small part of West Bank land where the vast majority of settlers live, as part of any final peace settlement.
However, Netanyahu is clearly the favorite here.
One 23-year-old said he was happy because he believed the apparent prime minister-to-be would not appoint an Arab Cabinet member, as Peres had suggested he might.
``I don’t think there should be Arabs in our government,″ said the man, who gave his name only as Lewis. ``This is not their home. Nothing here belongs to them.″