New right-wing leader worries Netanyahu

2012-12-27 16:06

Raanana — The charismatic new leader of Israel's Jewish religious right is siphoning a large chunk of votes from the prime minister's party, according to polls ahead of 22 January elections, and if the trend continues, the high-tech millionaire and former commando could emerge as a powerful voice opposing Palestinian statehood.

Though Naftali Bennett, the 40-year-old son of American immigrants, is a classic religious hard-liner, comfortable in the settlements he champions, he has been able to draw on his military and entrepreneurial background to widen his appeal to secular circles as well.

His sprawling, modern home in Raanana, an upscale suburb of Tel Aviv, is far from the barren hilltops of the West Bank settlers who form the backbone of his support.

Polls show his Jewish Home party becoming the third-largest in the upcoming parliament, behind Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc and the centrist Labour.

As Bennett's party gains ground, it has been steadily eating into Netanyahu's still-formidable lead. Several of Netanyahu's recent moves, including a surge in settlement construction announcements, have been attributed to the "Bennett factor".

Philosophically, Bennett and his party would fit easily into a hardline government of the type Netanyahu is expected to put together, though the political newcomer and the Israeli leader — his former boss and political mentor — have a history of bad blood that deepened over this past week.

Broadening base

Bennett's campaign has enlivened an otherwise drab election season. Recent polls suggest the Jewish Home party could add two to four seats to the 11 it already holds in the 120-member parliament.

Bennett says his goal is to broaden the base of his party by appealing to centrist, secular voters alongside the traditional backing of settlers and their supporters.

His political message, however, doesn't sound centrist.

"My positions are very clear: I never hide the fact that I categorically oppose a Palestinian state inside our country," Bennett said in a telephone interview.

In the terminology of religiously devout hard-liners, "our country" means not only Israel, but also the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which the Palestinians hopes to incorporate into a future state, with east Jerusalem as its capital.

Bennett takes pride in his straight-talking campaign and accuses other politicians — including Netanyahu — of being "ambiguous".

Supporters blinded by image

Bennett, a father of four, also has an image perhaps more palatable to the Tel Aviv hipsters he hopes to target: Success on their secular terms.

After serving in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, Bennett made a fortune in the largely secular world of high technology.

In 1999, he co-founded Cyota, an anti-fraud software company that he sold in 2005 to US-based RSA Security for $145m. He says he is living in Raanana, rather than a settlement, for unspecified "personal reasons".

"There is a huge gap between his appearance and his content," said Amnon Abramovitch, a veteran political commentator for Israel's Channel 2 TV. "He looks very modern, he speaks very liberally, but his messages are very extreme."

Political columnist Sima Kadmon said Bennett's clean, family image and modern lifestyle blind some of his supporters to his hard-line positions.

"Quite a few secular young men and women have fallen into that honey trap," she wrote.

Mysterious falling out

Bennett rejects the barbs, saying his positions are clear and distinctly hawkish: He opposes a Palestinian state, the uprooting of settlements and territorial concessions that most of the world deem necessary for peace.

He's presented a plan that calls for the annexation of much of the West Bank territory Israel currently controls.

"I say the same thing everywhere I go," he insists. "The mistake is to categorise me as extreme."

Bennett turned to politics after the sale of Cyota and served as Netanyahu's chief of staff for two years. They parted ways after a mysterious falling out he won't discuss but that Israeli media have linked to Netanyahu's wife, Sara, who wields great influence over the prime minister's inner circle.

He and Netanyahu clashed again when Bennett, then leader of the mainstream settler group, fiercely opposed Netanyahu's decision in late 2009 to slow settlement construction for 10 months in a US-led effort to encourage Palestinians to renew peace talks.

This year, he took his positions to the national political arena. Two months ago, he captured the chairmanship of the stodgy Jewish Home party from its colourless leader and set out to transform the party's image.

Political force

Bennett took his campaign everywhere from remote West Bank settlement outposts to trendy bars in Tel Aviv.

The strategy worked, and Jewish Home started gaining in the polls.

Evidence that Bennett was a political force to be reckoned with came this week when Israel's top-rated comedy show, A Wonderful Country, introduced a new character, iBennett: A user-friendly app that shows a broadly smiling Bennett-lookalike making extremist political pronouncements — described as bugs in the system.

Netanyahu hit back after Bennett told a TV interviewer last week that he would personally prefer to go to jail than to obey an order to evict Jewish settlers from their homes under a peace deal, as happened when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The prime minister summoned all three major Israeli TV stations for rare domestic interviews and announced that anyone who preached insubordination in the military would not be welcome in his next government. Netanyahu's camp then followed up with a campaign of posters and newspaper ads depicting Bennett as irresponsible and extremist.


Bennett says his comments have been distorted, that he wasn't preaching insubordination but voicing his own personal opinion — one that resonates widely within the religious right, which was traumatised by the Gaza pullout.

"I think people are looking for the truth and are drawn to real people who speak at eye level, even if sometimes they make mistakes," he said. "It was an unfortunate comment, but aside from wars I don't think the prime minister ever calls all the TV stations to him at once. The public isn't buying this spin and rejects it entirely."

Despite the campaign conflicts, Bennett insists he can work with Netanyahu.

"The question is who will be by his side," he said. "Netanyahu will drive the bus, but I refuse that he be alone at the wheel. I'll be there to put a hand on the wheel and influence where it goes."

  • fidelity.mcoshi - 2012-12-27 16:48

    There are no "doves" in Israel. They are all colonialist birds of a feather! It's time that like South Africa ordinary Israelis understand that the failure of their govt to find a peaceful solution is their failure too.

      avremel.niselow - 2012-12-27 16:51

      The failure is that of the Palestinians who have alway refused to make meaningful compromises. Israel has given away vast tracts of land such as the Sinai Peninsula in their quest for peace. Furthermore, you cannot colonize your own land, the Arabs were always the colonists since they took over from the Romans.

      fidelity.mcoshi - 2012-12-28 09:06

      Really, the "Palestinian Papers" confirmed that no matter what the Palestinians offered, no matter how many of Israel's (and the US's) pre-conditions they met, Israel's answer was still the same (NO). So it's funny to still hear the same old hasbara apologists repeat Israel "have no partner", and parrot about "missed opportunities".

      avremel.niselow - 2012-12-28 09:23

      The Palestinians have always refused to recognize the State of Israel, Abbas ha refused to come to the bargaining table unless Israel gives half it's capital city away. The sinai peninsula is larger than Israel yet that was given up in search of peace.

      fidelity.mcoshi - 2012-12-28 09:51

      There is no reason on Earth that recognising Israel must be a necessary precondition for a two-state solution. One could easily have two separate states that disagree on the "Jewish character" of the State of Israel, and still have two separate states, and still have peace. "Abbas ha refused to come to the bargaining table unless Israel gives half it's capital city away." The "Palestinian Papers" also reveal how the PLO agreed to the annexation of all East Jerusalem settlements except Har Homa, swapping part of the flashpoint East Jerusalem Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah for land elsewhere. The offers were made in 2008-9, in the wake of George Bush's Annapolis conference, and were privately hailed by the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, as giving Israel "the biggest Yerushalayim [the Hebrew name for Jerusalem] in history" in order to resolve the world's most intractable conflict. Israeli leaders, backed by the US government, said the offers were inadequate. “Israel takes more land [so] that the Palestinian state will be impossible . . . the Israel policy is to take more and more land day after day and that at the end of the day we’ll say that is impossible, we already have the land and we cannot create the state”. Tzipi Livni Supporting folk tongued Zionists is madness!

      avremel.niselow - 2012-12-28 13:53

      If the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel that shows that they will continue to seek its destruction, therefore it is an essential part of the negotiations.

      fidelity.mcoshi - 2012-12-28 15:42

      Bollocks, Palestinian's non-recognition of Israel is their starting position, and if negotiation were to take place, I am sure that as a final agreement, the Palestinians will recognise Israel.

      larry.lachman.54 - 2012-12-31 14:10

      Tried that, Fidel. "Land for peace" with the withdrawal from Gaza, remember. Why should Israel make the same mistake with the West Bank? besides, the Palestinians will simply revert to their pre-1967 position, which is to harrass and attack Israel to fulfill their real motive - which is the eradication of Jewish Israel. Thanks, but things are just fine as they are currently.

  • jeremy.bard.31 - 2012-12-27 21:03

    Brilliant! Bring it on Israel. The world couldn't hope for a better reason to solidify the isolation of Israel. Looks like Israel's demise will come sooner than we thought. Move over Nutcakeyahoo and let's get another looney in .... you are just not brutal and racist enough.

      avremel.niselow - 2012-12-27 21:24

      The Arab nations have been trying to destroy Israel for the last 60 years without success, the stronger Israel's leaders are, the better.

  • jeremy.bard.31 - 2012-12-27 21:12

    But the real tragedy of this is that the Israeli electorate, aided by it's lackey, the US, is erasing the words "Never Again" ..... as it brings more and more hatred onto itself. This is unfortunately the reality, and soon it will be too late, if not already.

      avremel.niselow - 2012-12-27 21:22

      The real tragedy is the way people like yourself side with terrorists who use their own children as human shields ahead of a country protecting its own people.

      fidelity.mcoshi - 2012-12-28 08:08

      The real tragedy is South Africans like yourself who side with land stealing terrorist scum!

      avremel.niselow - 2012-12-28 08:15

      Fidelity, Israel has always been the homeland if the Jews, the Arabs were the colonialists who took over the country in their expansion from the Arabian Peninsula. The terrorists are the ones who fire indiscriminate rocket attacks at schools, not the ones who launch surgical strikes at military targets. Terrorists are those who use children as human shields in order to garner world opinion and fake pictures of dead children, not those who drop warning leaflets while refraining from flattening their enemies.

      fidelity.mcoshi - 2012-12-28 08:43

      Really, so a Caucasian born in Australia or South Africa has more claim to the land in Israel than a Semite whose family has lived there for over 2000 years. Would you please tell us when the last rockets were launched from the West Bank into Israel?

      avremel.niselow - 2012-12-28 09:08

      The definition of "refugee" was specifically changed in this instance to include those who had lived in Israel for only two years prior to leaving. This was done in order to include the large number if very recent immigrants from neighboring countries. Not exactly 2000 years.

      larry.lachman.54 - 2012-12-31 14:13

      60% of Israeli Jews are Arab Jews expelled from neighbouring Arab and Muslim states. The balance are immigrants, no different to the many more millions of Arabs and Muslims who are emigrating to Europe, Australia and the USA.

  • jeremy.bard.31 - 2012-12-28 01:44

    You see Avremel, the first step is to unshackle yourself from racist Zionism, then from bigotry. Your newfound lenses will help see the world a whole lot clearer. You will also come to understand that the world is nauseated by Israel, its revolting actions, and its routine narratives and propaganda to justify and cover up its crimes, similar to what you have adopted as I have noticed from the language you use. The harsh reality is that Jews around the world including Israel will be a lot safer when the cancer of Zionism is eradicated. More importantly, the Middle East and the entire world will be a better place. Lastly, you need to understand too that the 60 years you mention is but a mere icon in history. If you are not seeing the tide that is turning against Israel, you are simply blinded, and this will be to your and Israel's detriment.

      heibrin.venter - 2012-12-28 02:25

      Jeremy, as much as you preach against 'racist' Zionism, you yourself should do a bit of introspection, and maybe look up the word 'tolerance', you know, like when Israel doesn't flatten Palestine because of the constant rocket attacks, or give away land as part of it's attempts at peace. Unlike the rest of the Middle East, where they can't even tolerate differences in their own religion without resorting to violence (Shiite vs Sunni muslims). Grow up, Israel isn't the antagonist!

      avremel.niselow - 2012-12-28 07:53

      Jeremy, Israel is the most inclusive country in the world. Prior to Israel, the Jews were terribly persecuted, now we have returned to our land and will not leave.

  • avremel.niselow - 2012-12-28 08:58

    It is not about race. How do you think the Arabs came to be in Israel in the first place? The Jews on the other hand have maintained a constant presence in the land.

      fidelity.mcoshi - 2012-12-28 09:25

      In the real world, many Palestinians are descendants of people who have lived there over millenia, and once spoke Hebrew and practiced Judaism as a religion.

      avremel.niselow - 2012-12-28 09:28

      What a load of nonsense. Do you have any proof to back up your claim? The Arabs currently living there were settled during the Arab expansion.

      fidelity.mcoshi - 2012-12-28 10:27

      It's a commonly spun-out argument you have there, but considering Zionists' love of 'evidence', I see you provide absolutely none concerning your argument.

      avremel.niselow - 2012-12-28 13:45

      You made a claim: you need proof.

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