Tel Aviv — “Who is more rightist?”
That’s the name of a fictional TV game show portrayed on this week’s installment of the Israeli satire show “Wonderful Country,” and the skit reflects the direction of the political discourse with less than a month remaining before the Jan. 22 parliamentary elections.
The battle is between Naftali Bennett, the Modern Orthodox leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, who strains to connect with secular Israelis by spewing youthful slang, and a trio of bumbling Likud parliament members who blurt out hard-line clichés in Pavlovian reflex.
In an election in which the wide lead of the right wing and religious parties bloc over the center-left has remained a constant — making Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the unchallenged favorite for re-election — the competition between Likud and Jewish Home for the right wing has become one of the main storylines of the campaign.
Bennett is the breakout political star of the campaign because he has imbued the main party of religious Zionists with a youthful spring, and with it the potential to reach beyond its Modern Orthodox constituency. He’s doing that by attacking the prime minister from the right, assailing the government for not living up to pledges on settlement expansion and denouncing Netanyahu as being soft for throwing support behind a Palestinian state.
“The fact that the entire world says something doesn’t mean it’s correct,” he said in an interview with a Channel 2 news magazine. “The move of Netanyahu to recognize a Palestinian state seven minutes from Rana’ana is delusional and a mistake.”
Polls show the critique from the right is working. There’s a steady erosion of support for Netanyahu’s Likud Party, while Bennett, a high-tech millionaire and former commander who has a plan to annex 60 percent of the West Bank, is surging to potentially become the leader of the third-largest party in the parliament.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, said much of Bennett’s appeal is emotional rather than intellectual, pointing to his frequent use of “achi,” the Hebrew slang equivalent of “bro.”
“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 secular party,” he said. (Jewish Home is the successor to the NRP.)
Political analysts have suggested that the rivalry on the right is responsible in part for driving recent announcements by the government on a wave of settlement-building in and around Jerusalem; the moves have stoked international criticism that Israel is making it impossible to create a Palestinian state.
The competition seems to have revived a public debate over Bennett’s annexation proposal — marking the first time since the Oslo peace accords that such a political discourse is picking up momentum.
At a conference in Jerusalem Tuesday evening on extending Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank, Likud parliament members expressed support for a phased annexation of the West Bank. Likud candidate Moshe Feiglin took it one step further, suggesting Israel should redirect funds for its Iron Dome rocket interceptor to relocation stipends of $125,000 to encourage Palestinians to leave the West Bank.
“The question is: Is the government that is going to be formed going to try again to divide up the land or do we have to think of new ideas. … It’s two-faced when we talk about a two-state solution but are building settlements. It doesn’t make us look good in the international community and doesn’t make sense,” said Yishai Fleisher, a radio host from the settlement of Beit El, trying to describe the dilemma of right-wing voters.
“The debate is whether we should strengthen Netanyahu from the right or from within. … Bennett is a younger version of Netanyahu. He leans more nationalist and more religious.”
The son of U.S. immigrants, Bennett speaks fluent American-accented English. His résumé charts a mainstream Israeli success: starting from the vaunted Sayeret Matkal commando unit, he became a software entrepreneur whose startup eventually sold for $145 million. After a stint as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, he became the director of the settlers’ umbrella Yesha Council — even though he himself resides inside of Israel proper in the affluent Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana.
“I’m blind to the Green Line,” Bennett told Channel 2 news, insisting that he makes no distinction between the settlements or where he lives.
Seizing on Bennett’s recent remarks that he would seek to avoid participating in an evacuation of a settlement, Likud has hit back against him by branding Bennett as a dangerous extremist who would encourage military insubordination.
When Israeli troops last weekend tried to evacuate a settlement outpost and were blocked by religious activists, reporters noted that Bennett is backed by the settler rabbis who support the hilltop youth who have used violence against soldiers.
“He’s the least worst of the options,” said Miriam David, a Modern Orthodox resident of Tel Aviv with a daughter living in the West Bank. A longtime backer of the National Religious Party, David said she voted for Likud in 2009 but is likely to return to Jewish Home.
David said she was turned off by Likud’s joint venture with Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister who has been indicted for fraud and breach of public trust for allegedly promoting a diplomat who fed him information on a police corruption investigation.
But she is equally troubled by what she considers some maximalist positions by Bennett.
“Like saying that the state of Israel is the state of the Jews totally,” she noted. “That’s scary. It even scares the religious nationalist community like me, because I think that at the moment of truth, you need to know how to compromise.”
Advocates of Netanyahu are arguing that right-wing voters need to get behind Likud if they want a leader that can govern effectively without being squeezed by smaller parties.
But the ultimately division of power between the right-wing parties is bigger than inside political baseball. Bennett’s support for annexation reflects a return to discredited ideologies that will have consequences for Israel on the international scene, said Klein Halevi.
“He’s turned Religious Zionism, essentially into a single issue, which is annexing the territories. … 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 said.
“Can Netanyahu have a major coalition partner that is aggressively annexationalist?” Klein Halevi asked. “Think of what this will do to Israel internationally. All those security voters who are attracted to the gregariousness of Bennett aren’t thinking this through.”