Naftali Bennett lost but also won big

So Bennett – the individual – lost terribly. And yet, he won massively. There are some 325,000 Jews now living permanently in east Jerusalem and another 450,000 Jews elsewhere in Judea/Samaria.

Naftali Bennet at coalition meeting, March 11, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Naftali Bennet at coalition meeting, March 11, 2018
Certainly, Israel’s outgoing Education Minister Naftali Bennett suffered a sobering defeat in last week’s national elections. He had been a cabinet minister with a powerful voice, alongside another profoundly impactful voice, outgoing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Together, they advanced bold agendas and never shied from speaking truth to power.
In the face of never-ending Hamas terrorist attacks from Gaza, Bennett demanded more intense responses. He felt his vision could not be realized unless he was advanced from Education Minister to Defense Minister, and he correctly grasped that such ministries do not typically go to parliamentarians from Israel’s religious parties. So, he bolted from the religious Bayit Yehudi that he led and had revived two elections earlier, and went “wildcat” with Minister Shaked at his side.
Bennett understood that risks and gambles give birth to great attainments. He formed a new party, The New Right, and he and Shaked compiled a fine list of Knesset candidates. Early polls showed some voter enthusiasm, even initially validating Bennett’s larger argument: that by creating a “secular” party advancing a pro-annexation agenda, new secular voters would emerge to give him seats, while traditional Bayit Yehudi and National Union Religious-Zionist voters would maintain the historic strength of the religious parties. Thus, in the aggregate, Bennett’s breakaway would expand that wing of Israel’s government.
In the end, the actual votes cast decreed that the gambit had failed. The New Right missed the 3.25% threshold by a microscopic 0.03% and was eliminated. Bennett – out. Shaked – out. The Religious-Zionist enterprise diminished. A terrible loss – although only a few more votes would have given The New Right four seats, creating an aggregate of eight or nine seats with the Religious-Zionist parties. Then, Bennett would have been validated as “visionary.”
So Bennett – the individual – lost terribly. And yet, he won massively. There are some 325,000 Jews now living permanently in east Jerusalem and another 450,000 Jews elsewhere in the Judea and Samaria.
Those almost-800,000 Jews are there to stay. Israel learned from the Oslo Debacle and from the Gush Katif catastrophe that gave Hamas a country for terrorism. There will never be a “Palestine” in Judea and Samaria, and the “Two-State Solution” is now fiction. It is utterly impossible to evacuate and uproot 800,000 Jews from their homes. It is easier to land Beresheet on the sun.
However, through his four prior terms, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would never agree to move forward on annexation. Rather, over the years, Netanyahu has made concessions at Wye; has agreed to construction freezes; and has even presided over the destruction of unauthorized new Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria and the evacuation of Jewish communities there. Netanyahu has proven himself a strong, courageous leader, but he was unable to dare try annexation.
WHEN BENNETT and Shaked created The New Right and did well in early polling, Netanyahu realized that Bennett and Shaked were attracting some secular but traditionalist Likudniks not willing to vote “Orthodox,” but also unwilling to wait for annexation. As Election Day approached, Netanyahu faced the real prospect that Likud might lose to Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party by four or more seats. President Reuven Rivlin then might select Gantz to try forming the next government.
Netanyahu reacted dramatically. He knows that Hebron and Shiloh are no less Jewish than the Golan, that Ariel is no Yamit and is permanent. He knows from 55 years of reality since the 1964 founding of the PLO that PA President Mahmoud Abbas is never going to agree to meaningful concessions on anything – not even to “land swaps,” as proven when such fruitless offers were made previously by prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. He knows that Ariel Sharon’s Gaza retreat handed Israel’s southern border to Hamas, and Ehud Barak’s South Lebanon retreat handed that region to Hezbollah. Those two terrorist regions can now blanket Israel with perilous rockets.
Bennett’s and Shaked’s New Right forced Netanyahu, in electoral desperation, to take the leap. To recapture the secular voters abandoning Likud for The New Right, he finally – and only in the last week of the campaign – said, in so many words: “If you stick with me this one more time, I hear you and I promise to annex. But I cannot unless you give me the edge over Gantz.”
So Likud voters came back home. Bennett and Shaked missed by only 0.03%. Bennett might even have gotten that itsy-bitsy more if he had executed his breakaway from Bayit Yehudi with more elegance. He might also have gotten those few extra votes if The New Right’s advertisements had not been so sophisticated and esoteric that only philosophers could understand Shaked’s “fascism perfume” ad, or the lyrics of the advertisement that showcased her singing voice but camouflaged her message. Maybe if instead, those ads showed footage of Jews tragically being pulled out of Gush Katif, juxtaposed with Hamas riots at Israel’s southern fence and Hamas rockets flying into Israeli farms. The New Right’s ads missed the constituency sought.
So Bennett lost, although Shaked seems destined for a leadership place in Likud. But make no mistake: If Bennett had not started The New Right and generated the support he did from secular Likud voters demanding reunification, Prime Minister Netanyahu would not have announced at the last minute that he finally will move to reunify Judea and Samaria with Israel, as Israel has done with east Jerusalem and the Golan – all liberated simultaneously during the same war in 1967. Bennett lost, but also won big for the Jewish people.
The writer is contributing editor of The American Spectator, a law professor and former Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review and congregational rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, California.