Israeli voters flock to 'brother' Naftali Bennett - but not all his policies

Right-wing politician Naftali Bennett has surged in popularity this election, but it has little to do with his vanguard proposal for annexing most of the West Bank.

Nir Elias/Reuters
Supporters of the the far-right Bayit Yehudi party stand in front of a campaign poster depicting the Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett in Tel Aviv January 16.

Every Israeli election season, there’s a politician with a provocative message who spurs his party to prominence and popularity.

In 2009, that was Avigdor Lieberman, who brought his ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party into coalition with the leading Likud party, becoming a central voice in Israeli politics. This time, the breakout candidate is Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, a former settler leader who opposes a Palestinian state and has proposed that Israel annex most of the West Bank.

But Mr. Bennett’s appeal lies somewhere other than his policies. He is a new, young face in politics, a former commando, and a self-made high-tech industry millionaire who offers out-of-the-box policy prescriptions reflecting an unconventional combination of feel-good Zionist patriotism with the middle-class populism of Israel’s 2011 social protest movement. That has helped him breathe new life into the stultified pro-settler party of religious Zionists, and allowed it to engage new constituencies despite running candidates with extreme religious and political opinions.   

"The job of the party I represent has always been to worry about the religious. I don’t want a sectoral [narrow-based] party," Bennett said at a meeting in Tel Aviv with a demographic far outside the definition of Jewish Home's typical supporters: largely secular Russian-Israeli yuppies. "I want a party that’s open to the secular... the Israeli patriot... and to be the lobby of all the people."  

This all-embracing pitch has helped him siphon away support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, making the rivalry on the right one of the major story lines of the campaign and prompting Likud to move further rightward in an effort to stop losing voters to Jewish Home.

The Jewish Home party is the offspring of the National Religious Party, which began in the center of Israel’s political map in the 1960s and 1970s but moved to the far right as Orthodox Israelis became increasingly identified with expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The party saw its parliamentary seats dwindle from 12 in 1977 to a low of three in 2009, at which point it renamed itself "Jewish Home."

According to an Israel Radio poll released last week, support for the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu joint candidate list dropped from 39 seats in December to 34 (out of 120 total seats in the parliament). Bennett’s Jewish Home party gained three in the same time period, bringing its projected total up to 14 seats. The Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu parties control 42 seats altogether in the outgoing parliament, while Jewish Home, together with a second party it teamed up with, control 7 seats.

'Bro' appeal

Jewish Home campaign material portrays Bennett as everyone’s favorite army buddy, and he addresses voters as achi (Hebrew slang for bro), reflecting how he has tried to appeal to unifying motifs for Israeli Jews. In commercials, he expresses frustration with Israel’s inconclusive military campaigns against Hamas and laments that the media isn’t patriotic enough, while waxing nostalgic for a time when Israelis could be proud of the Jewish state without "feeling ashamed." He calls for an end to the "hateful discourse" between secular and religious Jews in Israel, and between left and right.

"I love the land of Israel, I love the people of Israel, the Torah of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces," he says. "I love our soldiers. If you feel like me, you have a home."

But, in a nod to the broad Israeli public, he tells audiences that the land of Israel is not the central issue of Jewish Home. Bennett has also borrowed some of the populist themes of Israel’s socio-economic protest movement of 2011, vowing to bring down real estate prices, fight against the concentration of businesses in the hands of Israel’s tycoons, break up powerful unions and help young working families who can’t make ends meet – a situation he described as "anti-Zionist" to his Russian audience in Tel Aviv. He also talks about cutting Israel’s "sacred cow," – the bloated military budget – winning praise from the liberal newspaper Haaretz as the only politician willing to take on the army.

Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, says much of Bennett’s appeal is emotional, and has little to do with his national security ideas.

"Bennett has bottled the slang of army camaraderie, and he’s reaching out very successfully to secular patriots. This is the first time, in the history of the state, that we’re going to be seeing large numbers of secular Israelis voting for the National Religious Party, which used to be a sectoral party," Mr. Halevi says.

"My guess is that many of his new voters are not paying attention to his annexationist platform and might disagree with it if they thought about it," he says, referring to Bennett's proposal that Israel annex much of the West Bank. 

Bold thinker, or just an amateur?

Indeed, a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that some one-third of self-identified backers of Jewish Home actually support the creation of a Palestinian state, which runs counter to Bennett's proposal that Israel unilaterally annex some 60 percent of the West Bank designated in the Oslo Accords as  "Area C" – the territory which includes all the Jewish settlements and the open areas of the West Bank and is largely off limits to Palestinians.

Israel would build a transportation network through this territory to allow Palestinians to move between their towns and villages and link up the remaining cities and villages enclaves in the West Bank in the Palestinian controlled Areas A and B. Those Palestinians in areas annexed by Israel would be offered citizenship, while the rest would remain under their own autonomous government subject to Israel security control, much like today's arrangement. Bennett's plan marks the first time that annexation has been part of the mainstream political debate since the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s.

Bennett acknowledges that such a move would provoke an international outcry, but believes the world would eventually adjust, as it did when Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967.

Others aren’t that sure. Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, says that Bennett’s plan fills a vacuum of diplomacy and vision under Mr. Netanyahu, but said it belies his amateurism.   

"Bennett and others in the Israeli extreme right wing have no experience and are not aware of all the negative aspects of steps like this. I would call it ignorance of international affairs," Mr. Shaked says. "Israel can’t afford to be isolated more and more. We shouldn’t bring ourselves to a position to where everyone is deploring Israel, and Washington and Europe are unhappy. Israel should hold back on its instincts to take steps that will have negative diplomatic and political repercussions."

Spanning the divide

While Mr. Bennett assailed Netanyahu for supporting a Palestinian state – something he says would bring “200 years of bloodshed" – there was little focus on the annexation plan at Bennett’s meeting with the Russian young professionals. The conversation focused on the Orthodox Jewish monopoly on matters of Jewish conversion, marriage, and burial – burning issues for the Russian community because many of them aren’t considered Jewish under current Israeli standards, which are dictated by the ultra Orthodox.

But despite the potential for a clash between secular, urbane Russians and Orthodox Mr. Bennett, the two engaged with respect and seriousness. Bennett pledged to bridge the contentious culture gap between the secular and the ultra Orthodox, and look for practical solutions. At one point, a programmer named Igor got up and declared that despite their differences, they had Zionism as the common denominator. "I would be happy if you would represent us," he said.

Mr. Bennett’s surge is striking fear into Netanyahu's Likud party, and instead of attacking opponents on the Left, as they normally would in an election, they are going after Jewish Home. One Likud campaign advertisement accuses Mr. Bennett of "hiding" extremist candidates on his party list who have encouraged soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlements, and praising Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler who massacred Palestinians at prayer in Hebron in 1994.

In person, though, Bennett does not paint an imposing picture. He is clean shaven and wears a small, knitted skullcap – signs that he is not as religiously fervent of some of the more hardline settler activists. He doesn’t even live in a settlement (although he recently served as director of the settler’s council). Instead, he resides in an affluent Tel Aviv suburb, and with his high-tech industry success, he looks like a poster boy of Israeli success.   

A right-right battle

With the Israeli left weak and fractured, and polls casting Netanyahu as an overwhelming favorite, there is no left-right suspense in this campaign. Instead it is a battle for the right, which has helped Bennett get attention.

"Netanyahu has got a problem. He’s running a campaign unopposed, so its hard to get people excited," says Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster and strategic consultant. "Bennett is representing a hardcore ideology, but he’s marketing it in a different way… He’s a guy who says, 'I’m not a political hack. I’m from high-tech, I’m just like you. And I want to help.' He looks like potential voters."

That’s pretty much what Roman Yanushevsky, a Russian-Israeli journalist and former Likud voter, says when asked about why the Orthodox Jewish party was on his "short list." He said he was considering voting for Mr. Bennett's Jewish Home mainly because of the party leader's track record as a self-made businessman and his stance on socio-economic issues.

As for the annexation plan, Mr. Yanushevsky said it did not bother him. "That’s not the main point. He won’t be able to do anything about it," he says.

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