Israeli Right Rising: The Face of the Jewish State's Future Wants to Annex Illegal Settlements
Naftali Bennett at The Israel Project’s pre-election foreign-policy debate.
Photo Credit: Mati Milstein/The Israel Project/Wikimedia Commons
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Israel’s elections are coming up in a few days, but the biggest story of this election season has already been written. The rise of the HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party, and especially the emergence of its leader, Naftali Bennett, represents a shift in Israeli politics that the rest of the world must take note of.
Bennett represents the latest wave in Israel’s shift to the right. If the first mark was Netanyahu’s return as Prime Minister, the second was the emergence of Avigdor Lieberman as the voice of Israel’s new right. But Bennett, if he can sustain his position in the Israeli public’s eye, has the potential to surpass both of them. Netanyahu has always been seen, by supporters and opponents alike, as a venal politician, obsessed with the latest opinion polls and a leaf in the political winds. Lieberman, by contrast, is seen equally universally as a bully, a stereotypically Russian leader who bends the rules and moves forward with a crass, bull-in-a-china-shop style.
Bennett, despite politics at least as radically right-wing as either Netanyahu or Lieberman, casts a much more appealing image. He is seen, with good reason, as an effective communicator who is willing and able to talk rationally with a much broader spectrum of Israeli society and even a global public while sticking tightly to his ideals and goals. He exudes an aura of honesty, a man who says what he means and means what he says. Articulate and intelligent, Bennett, who made his money as a designer of security software, has the look of a typical, bourgeois, upper-middle-class Israeli. But he’s the man who has returned the so-called “national-religious camp” to prominence after many years of obscurity on the Israeli political scene.
In the past, the national-religious camp was a pivotal force in Israeli politics, but in recent years, it has given way to ultra-Orthodox parties and the national-religious support was scattered among smaller, right-wing parties, religious and otherwise, and the Likud. But a reassembled national-religious party represents a very significant constituency in Israel. It is the sibling of the sector which is often referred to as “modern Orthodox” in the United States--religious Jews often marked by wearing knitted yarmulkes, but without the beards or trademark side-locks of the ultra-Orthodox and who otherwise dress and look like anyone else.
The modern Orthodox Jewish community includes some of the most passionate supporters of Israeli policies in the United States, and more important, some of the most politically skilled and influential. Right now, support for Netanyahu is more important for right-wing American Jews, but if Bennett should rise within Israel to a level where the Prime Minister’s office is a realistic possibility, his style should have even greater appeal in the US than Netanyahu’s, whose own appeal among the US right, both Christian and Jewish, has been unprecedented among Israeli leaders.
Such a rise for Bennett is very possible. He has the ability to unite the right in Israel behind him. Likud rules the roost now, but it hasn’t held the same passion or broad appeal since Ariel Sharon split the party to form the slightly more centrist Kadima. Netanyahu has controlled the party ever since, and it has moved steadily right, with a mixture of religious and nationalist hard-liners pulling it in that direction. But Bennett may have a wider and stronger appeal than Bibi (Netanyahu's nickname)
Avigdor Lieberman was seen by some as having the Prime Minister’s office in his sights, but this was never very realistic. Lieberman was not only dogged by scandal, but his anti-religious politics alienated large portions of the right. Bennett appeals to both secular and religious Israelis and his economic views – anti-union, strong support for entrepreneurship, smaller government – also hold broad, populist appeal. His belief that Israel needs to wean itself from US military aid also speaks to a long-held feeling on the right, but one which has been politically incorrect for them to discuss.