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Israeli Right Rising: The Face of the Jewish State's Future Wants to Annex Illegal Settlements

Right-wing nationalist Naftali Bennett represents a shift in Israeli politics that the world should notice.
 
 
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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.

Bennett’s party may be a religious one, but he has largely steered clear of religious issues, promoting a sort of secular-religious union that can bring in a larger swath of Israeli society. He made a few headlines when he stated that he opposed gay marriage in Israel, but on the whole, these are not issues he or his party are focusing on. This helps a religious party appeal to secular Israelis, and indeed, HaBayit HaYehudi has not only been attracting secular voters; it even has secular candidates in prominent places on its party list.

The real news is that HaBayit HaYehudi under Bennett is sweeping up younger Israelis. The new generation in Israel holds a more nationalist sensibility than its forebears. It came of age or was born during the era of the Oslo Accords and as such has come to believe that a two-state solution with the Palestinians is impossible. This is precisely the message Bennett is bringing.

Bennett contends that the maximum Israel can give the Palestinians is still considerably less than the Palestinians are willing to accept. In this, he is expressing not only agreement with one-staters on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides (and their supporters worldwide) but also a view that is shared by many supporters of a two-state solution who despair that such an outcome is still possible. Again, Bennett has thus found a way to appeal to a wide cross-section of Israeli society.

Bennett proposes the annexation of Area C in the West Bank. This is about 60% of the territory and is currently under full Israeli control, containing all of the approximately 350,000 Jewish settlers there. The 50,000 or so Palestinians living in that region would then be offered Israeli citizenship or, if they chose to refuse that, the same residency rights as Palestinians in East Jerusalem (which, as we can see , has not been such a bargain for Jerusalem’s Palestinian population). He also proposes to then create free passage routes for Palestinians to get to all points of the “Arab West Bank” without the need for any Israeli military checkpoints.

Bennett calls this a temporary measure and recognizes that even this must be worked out in much greater detail. But the practicality of his plan is not really the point; it’s really about leading Israel into a post-Oslo future. Most Israelis understood from the very beginning that Benjamin Netanyahu’s assent to the two-state solution in his now-infamous speech at Bar-Ilan University after his electoral victory in 2009 was nothing but lip service. But what was the alternative? Netanyahu has never offered one, nor even the possibility of one. Bennett has stepped up with a different vision.

Centrists, both in Israel and the United States, have always categorically rejected any resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict other than the two-state solution. That turned into an iron-clad commitment to a particular form of that solution, which today is most closely captured in the Clinton Parameters: Israel will retain the major settlement blocs, Palestinian refugees will be allowed only to return to Palestinian territory, Jerusalem will be split along lines of “what is Jewish goes to Israel, what is Arab goes to Palestine,” the Palestinian state will be demilitarized and a safe passage route will be created between the West Bank and Gaza.

With the failures of negotiations along these lines in both 2000 and 2007, despite the fact that the Palestinians agreed to all of these terms in ’07, and the recent massive expansion of settlements in both the physical and political senses , this resolution is longer obviously pragmatic. Yet the center and center-left have steadfastly stuck to this failed formulation. While that has been politically viable, Israelis and Palestinians on the ground and across the political spectrum are well aware that the situation has changed. So, while Democrats in the US and parties like Labor, Kadima and even Likud have whistled in the dark in Israel, the more dynamic part of the Israeli right has taken the lead in formulating a post-Oslo future. The left, advocating either one state in some manner or a rethinking of a two-state formulation has no political expression in the Israeli or American government, so it cannot do what Bennett can.

That’s why Naftali Bennett is a potentially revolutionary and pivotal figure in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Netanyahu is not willing to state that he opposes a two-state solution. US President Barack Obama cannot seriously consider trying to re-write the parameters of an Israel-Palestine deal. Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovict and other centrist Israeli leaders are equally wedded to the two-state formulation and, if they realize it cannot be attained, their response is to give Israel more time and breathing space to maintain the status quo.

Bennett offers something different, and it is a purely Israeli nationalist vision. Indeed, the theme of his presentation of his plan is “Do what is best for Israel.” And Bennett does not take this stance from the point of view of a religious fanatic, or a secular fascist, but as a modern conservative who holds to free market ideologies and a strategic vision for Israel’s future. That sort of pitch is one that can win him many friends and admirers in Washington and perhaps even in some European capitals. It offers no relief to the Palestinians, of course, and it is a plan which resigns Israel to eternal, and likely increasing, hostility from the entire Arab world.

But in Bennett’s view, Israel is strong enough to withstand that, even, eventually, without US military aid. He probably isn’t correct about that, but he has the appeal and the positioning to have a chance at actualizing his vision. Advocates for the Palestinians, for peace in the region or even just for incrementally greater Middle East stability had better not underestimate him.  

Mitchell Plitnick is the former director of the U.S. Office of B'Tselem and former co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

 
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