Raining Knesset seats

Naftali Bennett has broadened his party’s appeal from the national religious settler heartland to the urban secular right and the young.

Naftali Bennett (photo credit: REUTERS)
Naftali Bennett
(photo credit: REUTERS)
FOR NAFTALI Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi the projected Knesset seats kept raining down like pennies from heaven. For the past several months, polls have consistently shown the primarily religious Jewish settler party second only to Likud. With projections of between 16 and 19 seats in the next Knesset, Bayit Yehudi is on the cusp of be coming a major party of government and Bennett, a politician with prime ministerial pretensions.
This reflects an astonishing climb for a party that not so long ago had only three Knesset seats and which holds just 12 to - day. It also reflects the meteoric rise of its 42-year-old neophyte leader, who has been involved as a candidate in party politics for barely two years.
For many, the stocky, straight-talking Bennett is already seen as the authentic leader of the Israeli right. In a recent poll on the politician who best represents the views of the right, Bennett garnered 39 percent, leaving his more experienced challengers trailing far behind – Likud leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won 28 percent and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beytenu just 20 percent.
What Bennett has done is to widen the party’s appeal from the national religious settler heartland to the urban secular right and the young. Young secular yuppies drawn by his youth, energy, high-tech aura and direct, all-Israeli style see him as a “cool” leader, in a field largely populated by older politicians they detest. Many tend to vote for the man, Bennett “the bro” and to overlook or play down his right-wing annexationist ideology.
This could be very dangerous for Israel.
Bennett’s politics undercut any remaining chance of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. With him at or near the helm, Israel could slide into a one-state reality, continuing its security control over two and a half million West Bank Palestinians. This in turn could spark Palestinian unrest and fuel a process leading to Israel’s international isolation.
Bennett is moving ahead rapidly to build on his success. His early September mendment of his party’s constitution was designed precisely to accelerate the transformation of Bayit Yehudi from a religious niche faction to a national party of power with a strong secular following. By increasing his powers, the new constitution helps establish the leader in the public mind as a potential prime minister; it also enables him to bring in vote-catching secular people as Knesset candidates without their having to participate in party primaries.
ACCORDING TO the new constitution, the leader can handpick one Knesset candidate in every five on the list, in other words four of the top 20; he alone will be empowered to decide whether or not to join a future coalition; and if he decides to go in, he alone will choose the party’s ministers.
Among Bennett’s political foes on the center-left, his authoritarian leadership style and uncompromising right-wing views earned him the Chaplinesque sobriquet “Benito Naftalini,” spoken only half in jest.
But there are also those closer to home who accuse him of running the party in dictatorial fashion. Knesset Members Yoni Chetboun and Motti Yogev were outspoken in their opposition to the changes in the constitution and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, leader of the far right settler Tekuma faction, which joined Bayit Yehudi ahead of the 2013 general election, fired off an angry letter to Bennett threatening to split the party if the changes went through.
More than Bennett’s leadership style is at issue: people like Ariel, Chetboun and Yogev argue that in wooing the secular vote, Bennett runs the risk of compro - mising national religious principles. At this rate, without its defining religious content, Bayit Yehudi will end up nothing more than a pale Likud clone, they insist.
Theirs, however, is a minority view. Most national religious players, rabbis, politicians and grass-roots supporters, captivated by the sweet smell of success, back Bennett with little reservation.
So far that is. According to Likud insiders, a potentially earthshaking political maneuver is afoot. They say Netanyahu and Bennett are considering an electoral pact, similar to the now defunct alliance between Likud and Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu.
The thinking is that like the deal with Liberman in 2013, running a joint Likud-Bayit Yehudi list will ensure the premiership for Netanyahu come the next election.
For his part in the move Bennett would get the foreign ministry, which he could use as a launching pad for bigger and better things.
The Likud insiders note that Bennett – once taboo for Netanyahu and especially his wife Sara – and the prime minister now have a close working relationship, clearing the way for possible inter-party collaboration.
Meanwhile Bennett continues to market himself as a prospective national leader.
During the summer war against Hamas in Gaza, as a member of the war cabinet, he went down to the border area, talking to soldiers and coming back armed with enough information to challenge Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s operational plans.
He was even accused of sending his close confidant former IDF chief rabbi Avichai Ronsky to the front, who by pulling his rank of Brig.-General (res) would sneak into high level military briefings and report back to Bennett.
YA’ALON SLAMMED the Bayit Yehudi leader for improper conduct, arguing further that his public criticism of the way the war was being waged gave away military secrets; Bennett retorted that without his information-gathering and persistence, the strategic tunnels Hamas dug under Israeli territory might never have been destroyed.
Both Netanyahu and the defense minister accused Bennett of claiming credit where none was due, and insisted that the IDF had been planning to hit the tunnels for years.
Irrespective of the rights or wrongs of the case, Bennett’s highly publicized confrontation with Ya’alon did the Bayit Yehudi leader a world of political good. Even if he was not directly responsible for the war on the tunnels, the subliminal message was of a top decision-maker on equal footing with the defense minister, a potential national leader with a keen grasp of military affairs, not afraid to speak his mind.
Naftali Bennett was born in Haifa in 1972 to Jim and Myrna, American immigrants who made aliya from California after the Six Day War. His initially secular parents turned religious when he was still a toddler, later sending him to the Bnei Akiva national religious youth movement and to a yeshiva high school. He took off his kippa after an IDF officers’ training course, but put it back on after the Rabin assassination in 1995, in defiance of widespread criticism of the national religious role in creating the climate that led to the prime minister’s murder.
In the IDF Bennett served in the elite Sayeret Matkal and Maglan commando units, becoming a company commander and a major in the reserves. In 1999, three years after his army discharge, he founded Cyota, a high-tech information security company, moving to Manhattan in 2001 to run its American operation. Five years later, he and his co-founders sold the company to RSA, a leading American firm in the field, for $145 million, making Bennett a very rich man.
Bennett’s second high-tech venture followed much the same pattern. In 2009, he helped to found and initially to run Soluto, a mobile phone and computer solutions firm, which was sold four years later to the American Asurion for over $100 million.
In the interim between the two high-tech ventures, Bennett was recruited to work for Netanyahu. After the March 2006 election, in which Likud polled only 12 seats, Net anyahu, confined to the opposition, seemed politically down and out. But a few months later, after the perceived government fail - ures in the prosecution of the Second Leb - anon War, his position in the polls began to soar. With a palpable chance to regain pow - er on the horizon, he brought in the dynamic Bennett to run his bureau.
Like many in Netanyahu’s entourage, Bennett was something of a Bibi-clone – staunchly right-wing with an American background. Initially the two men got on like soul mates in a mutual admiration society. But the arrangement lasted for little over a year. According to press reports at the time, Bennett, with his business-like, no-nonsense, target-oriented approach, found Netanyahu’s constant backtracking on agreed decisions, often after his wife’s intervention, impossible to stomach. He and Ayelet Shaked, the Netanyahu staffer who recruited him and who would become one of his closest political allies, quit to - gether in March 2008.
BENNETT WAS back in high-tech with Soluto when he was approached by settler leaders to help them capture hearts and minds as director of the Judea and Samaria Settler Council, a job he took in late Janu - ary 2010. But Bennett didn’t last long there either. He clashed with settler leaders over policy and over a Facebook initiative he launched with the secular Shaked called “My Israel.” The thinking behind it was to bypass what Bennett saw as the left-leaning Israeli press and use the electronic media to forge a majority right-wing religious-secular partnership. After tens of thousands joined, Bennett, with Shaked and Ronsky, formed a parallel political movement in 2012, called “Israelis,” with similar goals.
In mid-2012, the trio joined Bayit Yehudi, and Bennett almost immediately challenged for the leadership. In the November primary, he defeated the incumbent, veteran national religious politician Zvulun Or - lev, garnering an incredible 67 percent of the vote despite running against the party machine.
One of the first things Bennett did as leader was to widen the party ranks, by bringing in Tekuma and pressing his big idea for a right-wing secular-religious partnership as one of the main engines to drive the country forward in a rightist direction.
Bennett’s appeal is based largely on glib, aggressive straight-talking. For example, when a British TV interviewer insisted that what Israel was doing in the recent Gaza operation was disproportionate, he retort - ed, “Are you kidding me? If a thousand missiles were shot on your home and on your family... would you be talking about proportional?” On another occasion he likened the Palestinian problem to “a piece of shrapnel in the butt” – removing it (solving the problem) risked serious complications, leaving it alone only seasonal pain. The straight tough talk is coupled with smart marketing and sloganeering: “Something new is starting” and “Bennett is a bro” were two of the party’s highly successful electioneering catch phrases.
 Bennett’s success reflects a movement of settler thinking to the mainstream, some - thing the settlers had tried and failed to achieve for decades. It is, however, bad news for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process the center-left sees as the key to Israel’s future in the region.
“The Israel Stability Initiative” Bennett floated in early 2012 calls for Israeli annexation of “Area C,” which constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank and includes all Israeli settlements. In the remaining 40 percent, where the overwhelming majority of Palestinians reside, the Palestinians would have a measure of autonomy, but remain under an Israeli security umbrella.
This arrangement would be consolidated by Israeli-Palestinian economic and business cooperation. As for Gaza, it would revert to Egypt.
But would the Palestinians accept what amounts to indefinite Israeli occupation? Would the world? Bennett makes a string of arguments the center-left claims ignore regional and international realities and entail an ostrich-like burying of the head in the sand.
For example, he insists that if only Israel were clear and firm over its right to all the land, it would be able to convince the international community; that if Israel is boycotted, it will be strong enough economically to stand alone; that many inter - national players will not boycott Israel because they need its partnership as much as it needs theirs; that the world needs Israeli innovation, for example chips in computers and cellphones, stents in heart surgery, irrigation and navigation systems – as if it could not find alternatives.
Nevertheless, to preempt the effects of possible European boycott moves, Bennett as economics minister has been taking steps to develop alternative trade ties. He has closed Israeli trade missions in Finland and Sweden, and opened new ones in China, India and Brazil.
In Bennett’s view, the Palestinians, and all the Arabs for that matter, are basically out to destroy Israel, and Israel must hang tough to resist them. “Every time we vacate a piece of land, within days it becomes a launching pad for missiles... Every time we give them sovereignty, they kill us,” he declares. The operative conclusion is that Israel needs to keep most of the land and maintain security control over all of it.
This is not very far from Netanyahu’s current thinking and explains why after Operation Protective Edge the prime minister made no effort to exploit favorable regional conditions to launch the far-reaching diplomatic initiative many leading international players hoped he would.
With the Palestinians now poised to take the conflict to the UN and other international bodies in an attempt to whip up a diplomatic and economic tsunami against Israel, the question is does the ruling Israeli right have the necessary subtlety of mind and creativity to deflect it, or do the Knesset seats showering down on Naftali Bennett herald a head-on collision not only between Israel and the Palestinians, but between Israel and its closest allies?