Australia/Israel Review


The Appeal of Naftali Bennett

Jan 23, 2013 | Andrew Friedman

The Appeal of Naftali Bennett
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Andrew Friedman

 

In many ways, Naftali Bennett is a study in contrasts. He is an unapologetic supporter of Israel’s right to settle the open spaces of Judea and Samaria, but he makes his home in Ra’anana, a leafy, upscale town just north of Tel Aviv. He believes Israel should annex Area C, the section of the territories that is home to nearly all Israelis who live over the Green Line, but he also says Israelis must take care not to settle on privately owned Palestinian land. Officially, he is the chairman of an Orthodox party, but his election list features an attractive secular woman. He is a hi-tech millionaire, but he believes fervently that the country must do more so that middle class Israelis can make ends meet at the end of the month.

As a result, Bennett’s Jewish Home campaign has redefined Israeli politics. Since the advent of the Zionist movement in the 19th century, Israelis have maintained notably sectoral voting patterns – secular Tel Aviv residents overwhelmingly voted for the Labor Party; traditional, lower socio-economic Sephardim voted for the Likud; and religious Zionist knitted kippa (“skullcap”) wearers voted for the National Religious Party. Bennett’s ability to combine a majority of Israel’s election issues into one platform – and especially his ability to rise above negative campaigning and what many Israelis consider “dirty” politics – appealed to a wide swath of Israelis.

Take the issue of national service for the ultra-Orthodox community. The issue is one of the most politically-charged topics in Israel, and one that garners a healthy dose of resentment amongst Israelis who serve in the Israel Defence Forces. But while Bennett has also called for changing the status-quo to require all Jewish Israelis to serve, he does so without the anger or populism exhibited by many of the more veteran politicians.

“Yes, I want the ultra-Orthodox to work, and I want them to serve the country,” he told the Hebrew-language financial paper The Marker. “But I don’t want to beat them (the Orthodox community) down with this issue. The truth of the matter is that today the country does not maximise the potential pool of Orthodox soldiers and national service volunteers because the government has not created enough positions for them. So let’s work together with the haredi (ultra-Orthodox community) to create frameworks and positions in the army and in civilian service programs that will allow them to serve while also remaining true to their religious ideals.”

The example illustrates Bennett’s approach to a host of domestic and international issues that Israel will face in the coming years – consensus building, political cooperation and mutual respect to navigate potential political minefields, all while keeping his eyes squarely on what he views as the ultimate prize: A solidly right-wing government that will also be committed to economic growth and social justice. It is an approach he has maintained since taking over the helm of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria (Yesha Council) in January 2010, and which led him to participate in the social protest movement that rocked Israel in the summer of 2011. Bennett took some heat for the image of a settlement leader taking part in the protests that focused on economic issues, particularly because the demonstrations were funded in part by the anti-settlement New Israel Fund. However, supporters in the settlement community say it was the right move to make.

“Naftali took this job with one over-riding objective: To make ‘Judea and Samaria’ an issue for all Israelis,” said Yigal Gilmoni, a spokesman for the Yesha Council. “During the Gaza Disengagement in 2005, we told ourselves that the country supported the Jewish communities in Gaza and northern Samaria, but when push came to shove the only ones protesting were other settlers. Naftali understood that instead of always fighting for small victories to preserve one or another outpost, we had to return to the country, to work with the Israeli public and to make it clear that we are a central, contributing, positive segment of Israeli society. We don’t have to agree with everybody on every issue, but it is critical that we are seen as part of the debate.”

Throughout the campaign, Bennett was the subject of withering attacks by the leaders of nearly every other political party, first-and-foremost by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. But he refused to return fire, saying only that he is proud of what he has accomplished and maintaining a focused campaign that dealt only with election issues and his proposed solutions to them.

Which is not to say Bennett has shied completely away from criticising the Prime Minister. Speaking to the AIR by phone in early January, Bennett said he was disappointed by Netanyahu’s attacks, but also held out hope for the possibility that Jewish Home and Likud would be coalition partners when the new government forms.

“It is too bad that the Likud has chosen to attack us, because the attacks have the effect of hurting the national religious camp. At the end of the day, our agenda and the Likud agenda should be the same – a strong policy that supports the whole Land of Israel. I believe that is not a narrow ‘settler’ issue. I think it’s a point on which a vast majority of Israelis would agree,” Bennett said.

That may or may not be true, but supporters say that fact is less important than another point of Bennett’s campaign: He is proud to be Israeli, and is unafraid to say it openly.

“It’s easy to forget this fact, but most people in Israel are happy,” said Jon Medved, a Jerusalem venture capitalist whose Israel Seed Investments was the first investment house to support Bennett’s hi-tech company Cyota in the late 1990s. “We see it in study after study – Israel is one of the happiest countries on earth, but you’d never know it by reading much of the media. There, you’ve got a small cadre of hyper-critical elites who want to portray this country as a nasty, human rights-violating ogre of a country.

“Bennett believes that Israel has accomplished terrific things in a short amount of time. He believes in the total justice of our Israeli project, and he believes that Israel has done a pretty good job against some terrific odds in a relatively short amount of time. Most important of all, he’s not afraid to say all these things out loud and it’s striking a chord with many, many young people who would never have voted for a ‘right-wing’ party before,” said Medved.

Ironically, Jewish Home’s success could create trouble for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as coalition building begins. Sources inside the Likud say the Prime Minister is deeply worried by the notion that a coalition partner that could scuttle peace-making moves that could involve ceding West Bank land to the Palestinians and evicting Jewish residents from their homes. “There is virtually no chance the current Palestinian leadership will agree to a deal with Israel at this time, so there is really very little to worry about. But the Prime Minister made it clear in 2009 that he is in favour of a Palestinian state under the right conditions, and that is the Likud Beitenu platform. He does not want to include Jewish Home in the coalition if they cannot live with this segment of the government’s platform,” said one member of the Likud Central Committee who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

As a result, some observers predicted during the campaign that Netanyahu would try to form a coalition with centrist parties that are pushing for territorial concessions as part of a peace deal. These include Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“We have a Future”) party, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah (“The Movement”), and potentially even the Labor Party. Likud officials have remained silent on the matter during the campaign, but a report on Israel Radio on December 26 that Netanyahu and Livni have made plans to join forces after the election lends some credence to the claim.

At the end of the day, however, Bennett said his party is not beholden to any one coalition make up or another. “I hope we will work together with the Likud in the next government,” Bennett told AIR, “but we are more committed to our ideals. Whether or not we are in the government we will support any moves that strengthen the issues on our platform, and whether or not we are in the government we will work against anything that goes against our ideals.”

 

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