The generation game

Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett’s youth and energy have won him supporters from outside of his own base of settlers and the right wing.

cheeky bennet 521 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
cheeky bennet 521
(photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
If gritty kibbutzniks defined the founding generation of Israelis, Naftali Bennett, the new leader of the Bayit Yehudi party, could be seen as a prototype of the modern state: young, clean-cut, veteran of an elite IDF combat unit and selfmade millionaire.
At 40 years old, Bennett will be one of the youngest MKs in the 19th Knesset, and the Bayit Yehudi list has the youngest average of any election list: The average age of the top 15 Bayit Yehudi candidates is 48, as compared to the 56 years for the Likud-Beytenu’s opening 15.
Since October, Bayit Yehudi has spiked in pre-election polling from initial predictions of four to six seats to current surveys showing that the party could walk away with as many as 17. If Bayit Yehudi comes in around the upper range of projections, the party would have enormous clout either as the right-wing pillar of a strongly nationalist Benjamin Netanyahu government or as a powerful opposition party, should Netanyahu close a deal with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Shelly Yacimovich’s Labor or Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua.
In almost every way, Tom Genossar represents the young generation of Israelis. The 24-year-old has a good job as the social media manager for a new start-up company; she is a life-long resident of Tel Aviv, feels little connection to Hebron, Efrat and other Jewish sites on the West Bank, and at least in casual conversation appears to have equally little connection to religious Judaism. Yet Genossar, although still not 100-percent certain, is leaning heavily towards voting for Bennett’s party.
“I haven’t really thought about it that much,” Genossar tells The Jerusalem Report.
“Really, I’d have to say that politics really isn’t my thing. But when I think about the options out there in this election, I see a person who is young, dynamic and energetic. Even more importantly, Bennett is new. I don’t know that much about the more established politicians, but I do feel that they haven’t done anything good for Israel. The Knesset needs new blood, and that’s what Bennett represents for me.”
Yet the support from individuals like Genossar does not appear to extend to Bennett’s political platform. When asked about Bennett’s ideas about annexing Area C, the Oslo-era term for regions of the West Bank that are under full Israeli civilian and security control, Genossar says the idea “really doesn’t speak to me.”
One could assume that few secular Tel Aviv types would support other ideas fronted by Bayit Yehudi members, such as opposition by party No. 2 Uri Ariel to allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the IDF or Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan’s (No. 4) suggestion that single-sex marriage is a “recipe for the destruction of the Jewish people.”
Still, if the pre-election polls are accurate, the latest incarnation of the National Religious Party is slated to march into the Knesset with the largest religious Zionist representation in decades, largely because of the backing from voters such as Genossar. Supporters explain this apparent contradiction by saying this election has ceased to focus on “traditional” election issues and has zeroed in on a far more fundamental question: The very nature of life in Israel.
Bennett “has tapped into the positive energy that defines so much of this country,” says Jon Medved, a Jerusalem venture capitalist whose Israel Seed Investments was the first investment house to support Bennett’s high-tech company Cyota in the late 1990s.
Bennet went on to sell the company to RSA Security for $145 million in 2005. Medved says Bennet “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.”
Perhaps even more significant has been Bennett’s attempts to reach out in real terms to secular voters, and his visible effort to expand the party’s appeal beyond the Green Line and outside the synagogue walls. As chairman of the Yesha Council of Settlements in 2010-2011, he made a concerted effort to change the settlers’ image and to reach out to the majority of Israelis who are not Orthodox and who do not live in Judea and Samaria.
Bennett’s Yesha Council stressed the fact that that fully one-third of Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria are secular, and he strongly rejected the label “settlers,” feeling that the phrase had come to be used as an epithet.
“We are not ‘settlers.’ We are Israelis, and we must talk to Israelis,” he said at the time, adding that the ultimate success of the settlement enterprise requires support from a majority of Israelis.
That message was most notably on display during the 2011 social protest demonstrations, when Bennett visited protesters and expressed support for some of the goals of the movement. That move did not ingratiate him to some traditionalist elements in the national religious camp, who were suspicious of the left-wing leanings of protest leaders, such as Stav Shaffir and Daphne Leef, as well as the New Israel Fund’s support for the movement.
But it did make a statement to both settlers and “Green Line” Israelis alike, one which claimed that the gap between the two communities is fictional and fake.
Listening to Bennett speak, it is apparent that he believes there is indeed a significant overlap between settler and secular values.
His call for Haredim to serve in the IDF or to perform national service has struck a chord with many voters. His support for the social protest movement created sympathy for the settlement movement by showing that settlers identify with the needs and desires of other Israelis, as well as to encourage the government to address housing issues by building in Jewish communities over the Green Line.
Similarly, the party has emphasized the role of Ayelet Shaked, No. 5 on the party list and a prototype secular Tel Aviv mother of three, to paint an image of a centrist party focused on issues of importance Furthermore, while Bennett is personally observant, his style of dress does not indicate that he is part of the messianic wing of religious Zionism that has dominated the nationalist Orthodox camp since the Six Day War. Although he does wear a small black knitted yarmulke, he combines it with casual “Israeli-style” clothes, and has eschewed the traditional full beard. It is an image that sells: Whereas the Bayit Yehudi election list features a healthy dose of staunch Gush Emunim veterans, Bennett’s appearance allows him to present himself as the epitome of moderate religious Zionism.
Candidates who tried to slug it out with Bennett on a personal level have come away with bloody noses, and watched Bennett’s popularity rise as a result. The most obvious example of this is Netanyahu, who responded to Bennett’s comment in mid-December that seemed to encourage IDF soldiers to refuse orders to evict settlers from their homes.
Netanyahu launched a blistering direct attack on Bennett following the comment and said that MKs who call for insubordination will have no place in the next government.
But Bennett refused to bad-mouth the prime minister and the Likud-Beytenu list continued to watch its polling numbers fall, and Bayit Yehudi's rise.
“I’m very proud of our list,” Bennett tells The Report in a phone interview. “We’ve got the most diverse group of candidates in this election, we’ve got the youngest election list of any party, we’ve got a higher percentage of candidates who served in IDF combat units.”
Asked whether the personal attacks have affected him, Bennett makes it clear that they have not. As he has in the past, he refuses to criticize Netanyahu, saying only that he is proud to have served as his chief of staff. But he also defends the criticism he directed at the prime minister during the 2010 settlement construction freeze, and calls on his former boss to lay out a clear election platform.
“Mostly, I’m disappointed by the Likud’s attacks because they damage the nationalist camp. This is the first election in Israeli history that the result is basically known ahead of time – Netanyahu is going to be the prime minister. The only real question remaining is whether he will build his next government with the Tzipi Livni-Amram Mitzna leftwing camp or with us. So his attacks on us are really firing at his own political camp,” he says.
Netanyahu’s refusal to outline clear goals and policies for his next government could indicate that Bennett’s concerns about a Likud coalition with the center-left bloc have merit. Such a move has a precedent in the not-too-distant past: Ariel Sharon broke with the Likud to form the Kadima Party in 2005 when the right-wing flank of the party made it difficult for Sharon to move forward with the second phase of his Gaza disengagment plan – a similar move he’d envisioned for large swaths of the West Bank.
In the current race there have been no suggestions that Netanyahu could make a similar move, but there have been suggestions that he could move to sideline Bennett and right-wing members of the Likud party, such as Moshe Feiglin, by joining forces with center-left parties.
“Historically, we see that a too-strong Likud is a very dangerous thing for the right,” says Bennett. “The party was very powerful in 2005 and there was no way to prevent the pullout from Gaza. At the end of the day, we want to be the largest coalition partner in the next government. We believe Netanyahu is the best man for the prime minister’s chair, but I think he also needs a strong bloc of support on his right to support the traditional Likud platform. We want to give him that support.”
If there is one area where Bennett comes away looking less than perfect is in interpersonal relationships. His stints in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Yesha Council were both short-lived, and both ended under a cloud.
One West Bank mayor hinted to this reporter that Bennett made more than a few enemies in both positions because of a strong tendency to assert control and a “my way or the highway” attitude towards colleagues and subordinates, but could not – or would not – give specifics. Another, a respected political observer and commentator, would not agree or disagree with that statement, saying simply, “You have to ask why he left both positions so quickly, and with similar clouds of uncertainty in both cases.” A third individual, who runs a large West Bank non-profit organization and enjoys top-level contacts in many settler organizations, said he has never seen the type of uniform silence that surrounded (and continues to surround) Bennett’s breaks from Netanyahu and the Yesha Council.
Still, it should be noted that Bennett continues to enjoy the support of people who are close to the prime minister and to the Yesha Council. Yigal Gilmoni, assistant director of the Yesha Council, credited Bennett with revolutionizing the council by focusing on the bigger picture – securing large-scale public support for Jewish settlement east of the green line – instead of fighting every minor battle that emerged regarding one individual outpost or community.
“Everything Naftali has touched has become a success,” says Gilmoni. “It’s easy to forget, but he joined Bibi’s team when he was a down-and-out former prime minister, and Naftali was instrumental in bringing him back to the top job. It’s true at the council, too. The council wasn’t in great shape before he arrived, but he came on board with a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve – to get rid of the idea of creating two states in the Land of Israel – and how he wanted to achieve it.
“Having worked closely with Naftali for two years, I can only say that I understand why the other parties are worried about Bayit Yehudi. We’ve finally got a candidate who is talking clearly about annexing parts of Judea and Samaria, and he’s taken that issue beyond the narrow boundaries of the nationalreligious world. All of a sudden, Judea and Samaria, Jewish values and feeling positive about Israel are considered cool, not only in Beit El and Shilo, but also in Rehovot and Kfar Saba and Afula and Rosh Pina. Naftali has brought youth and energy to Israeli politics for the first time in many years, and people are feeling his optimism. It’s a terrific phenomenon to watch.”