Middle Israel: Naftali Bennett's dangerous liaisons

Naftali Bennett’s dream to refashion religious Zionism as Israel’s political fulcrum seems increasingly elusive, following his scandalized protégé Yinon Magal’s resignation.

By
December 5, 2015 19:27
Yinon Magal

Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett (R) welcomes veteran television news anchor Yinon Magal. (photo credit: FACEBOOK)

 
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They never learn.

With yet another lawmaker’s promising career abruptly felled amid harassment allegations, it seems that no amount, variety, or harshness of precedent will ever bar the odd sex offender from entering politics.

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Fifteen years after Yitzhak Mordecai resigned his cabinet seat before being convicted of indecent acts; seven years after actor Hanan Goldblatt’s rape conviction; and halfway into former president Moshe Katsav’s jail term for similar offenses, Bayit Yehudi MK Yinon Magal resigned his Knesset seat Monday amid several women’s allegations of sexual harassment.

Coupled with the leave of absence imposed last week on Asst.-Ch. Roni Ritman, head of the “Israeli FBI,” due to a policewoman’s harassment complaint, many saw Magal’s case as but another of the sexual-misconduct tales that have clouded the public sphere in recent years.

It isn’t.

The Magal scandal’s significance lies not in what he did, which is much less than rape or indecent acts, nor in how he responded to the allegations, which unlike other sex offenders he neither denied nor shirked.

Rather, this affair’s distinction is about its political location, the traditionalist Bayit Yehudi Party, and about Magal’s closeness to its leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and his embodiment of and damage to the latter’s strategy, achievements and hopes.

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A graduate of Hebrew University Secondary High School, better known by its acronym “Leyada,” Magal was reared with the children of veteran Israel’s liberal elite, far from the modern-Orthodox realms whose borders he would later cross, bend and breach.

Magal’s journey to tradition did not happen during his illustrious military service as an officer in the IDF’s elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, where he participated in daring commando raids such as the kidnapping in 1989 from south Lebanon of Hezbollah cleric Sheikh Abd el-Karim Ubeid.

Magal joined that unit three years before Bennett, when its share of modern-Orthodox soldiers was still low. His discovery of Judaism, he claims, was sparked during his post-military trip to India, when he saw an Israeli fellow traveler bow to a statue of Buddha, a gesture that he later said shocked him and made him search after his spiritual identity.

Magal gradually became traditional, keeping the dietary laws and observing the Sabbath, but stopping short of becoming Orthodox. Having at the same time developed a media career, the Hebrew University Middle Eastern studies graduate personified the non-Orthodox, nationalist-traditionalist electorate with which Bennett hoped to multiply and redefine religious Zionism from a political fifth wheel to the Jewish state’s political engine.

As a journalist, Magal’s military background and Arabic proficiency helped him become Arab-affairs correspondent for Army Radio and then military correspondent for Channel 10 News, positions from which he later proceeded to co-anchor Channel 1’s nightly news before joining the Walla news site, where he became editor in chief.

Magal’s combination of patriotism, tradition, eloquence, charisma and celebrity comprised the kind of leader with whom Bennett resolved to carve chunks out of the Likud’s electorate and thus turn a party of rabbis, settlers and yeshiva graduates into an inclusive, pluralistic, and elastic creature that is more national than religious.

Magal therefore became one of the two candidates the party allowed Bennett to personally insert into its roster of Knesset candidates, without running in its primaries. The other was soccer legend Eli Ohana, who was to be the working-class complement to Magal’s upper-middle-class appeal.

Ohana’s candidacy collapsed within days of its announcement, following an outcry from within Bennett’s party, where many could not stomach a representative whose career was fed by Saturday matches which Orthodoxy decries as public desecration of the Sabbath.

Bennett’s hope following the Ohana episode was that it would be quickly forgotten. Instead, it now emerges as a prelude to an even more painful embarrassment which possibly marks a brave vision’s grand demise.

MAGAL’S DOWNFALL, like the Ohana affair, raises questions concerning Bennett’s judgment. In both cases Bennett failed to see in advance that his candidates hailed from ecosystems that are alien to his core constituency.

The obscene passes with which journalist Rachel Rothman charged Magal, a married father of four, were apparently legal. However, in the Walla news organization where they happened, they appear to have been part of an organizational culture that in the modern-Orthodox milieu Magal joined is even more abominable than Ohana’s desecration of the Sabbath.

Bennett’s failure to detect in advance the flaws in both candidacies now exposes him as an arguably frivolous leader who is better at gimmickry than at calculation and thought.

Worse, between Ohana’s downfall in January and Magal’s in December, Bennett’s party was handed in March a ringing electoral blow when it lost onethird of its voters. Bennett’s master plan is therefore questioned both in terms of its crafting and in terms of its delivery.

The idea of engineered politics, whereby candidates elected by party members make way for handpicked celebrities so as to impress distant constituencies, has failed, at least the way Bennett executed it.

At the same time, Bennett’s vision now stands to be challenged also in terms of its substance.

Originally, modern Orthodoxy greeted Bennett’s project with enthusiasm. His quadrupling in 2013 of the party’s faction from three to 12 lawmakers was one of the more impressive electoral feats ever seen here.

The party rank-and-file’s endorsement of Bennett’s pluralistic formula was made plain in its subsequent primaries, where secular lawmaker Ayelet Shaked won first place. That is how Shaked ended up justice minister. However, the subsequent election disappointment indicated that Bennett’s party managed to restore, but failed to breach, the historic National Religious Party’s electoral confines. Its secular representatives never brought the secular masses.

Even so, with Magal serving as chairman of its Knesset faction, the party was now headed by a triumvirate that included the secular Shaked, the bareheaded Magal and the mildly Orthodox Bennett.

Some hacks were uncomfortable with this configuration, but as long as it brought votes, shielded the settlements and served religious interests as they understood them, they backed Bennett’s revolution.

Yet with the recent election denting his clout, Bennett was soon forced to set aside his innovative politics in order to serve his party’s original agendas.

The American-born hi-tech millionaire whose eloquent and telegenic sound bites copycat Netanyahu’s, hoped to become foreign minister, a position that religious Zionism’s politicians never held, and not because they were ineligible.

In 1979, following Moshe Dayan’s resignation, Menachem Begin offered the job to the leader of the National Religious Party, Dr. Yosef Burg. An erudite and effective speaker who mastered more than a dozen languages, the German-born Burg was up to the job no less than Abba Eban.

Still, modern Orthodoxy’s leader turned the offer down in order to remain interior minister. There was less prestige in that agency and also less impact on the nation’s direction, but there was much sectarian leverage there, since the Interior Ministry funnels much money to municipalities and regional councils.

Though back then it, too, commanded 12 seats, like Bennett’s peak in 2013, Burg’s National Religious Party did not court the secular electorate and certainly did not field secular candidates.

Not so Bennett. The aspiring prime minister wanted the Foreign Ministry because he had set out to lead not one constituency and its narrow needs but the entire country. The Foreign Ministry would serve that aim, because its leader is automatically touted as a potential prime minister.

The party veterans, however, cared for the constituency more than for their leader’s personal ambitions, and therefore wanted him to take the Education Ministry. In that agency, modern Orthodoxy’s sprawling network of kindergartens, elementary schools, high schools, yeshivas, seminaries and colleges could be better served.

Electorally humbled, Bennett now lacked the clout with which to impose himself on his party and on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not want to grant his declared challenger the Foreign Ministry’s visibility. Bennett thus ended up in the Education Ministry in spite of himself.

Putting on a brave face and claiming education had long been dear to him, Bennett soon declared the decline in math majors “a strategic threat” and launched a project to multiply math majors. It was his way of saying he will not be an education minister like the old NRP’s Zevulun Hammer and Rabbi Yitzhak Levi. He will deal, even in that domestic setting, with “strategic” affairs, in line with his vision that his party’s task is to treat the national issues that sprawl beyond its constituents’ communal confines.

Well he won’t. Internal opposition to Bennett’s project will now grow. The insertion of unelected candidates will likely be canceled, the election of secularists will become more difficult, and the embrace of distant causes will lose its appeal.

Already debilitated by the one-two punch it was dealt between the Ohana embarrassment and the election fiasco, Bennett’s vision may have been condemned this week to its final defeat.

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