The great right hope: Michael Petrou on the rise of Naftali Bennett

How a hawkish politician is shaking up Israeli politics

by Michael Petrou

Naftali Bennett, a hawkish Israeli politician whose lightning-fast rise on the right has shaken up Israeli politics in the run-up to the country’s Jan. 22 parliamentary election, campaigns with a hip and folksy charm that seems to soften the edges of his radical and illiberal ideas of how Israel should get along with Palestinians.

Even former prime minister Ariel Sharon—“the Bulldozer”—eventually came around to the idea of Palestinian statehood. Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he has, too, though he’s done little in practice to advance the proposition.

Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home political party, doesn’t bother with lip service. “There are some things that most of us know will never happen,” says one of his campaign ads. “The Sopranos will not return for another season. Rami Kleinstein [a bald Israeli singer] will not grow an Afro. And a peace agreement with the Palestinians will not happen.”

This political pitch is narrated over video of an artist illustrating Bennett’s arguments with whimsical and cartoonish pictures of maps and guns and oversized hair. It has the style of a smartphone commercial. And it suits Bennett, who is young, and who before entering politics made millions as a software tycoon.

Under Bennett’s “stability initiative,” Israel would formally annex about 60 per cent of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and offer citizenship or residency status to the approximately 48,000 Palestinians living there. Palestinians living in the remainder of the West Bank would be allowed some autonomy but not statehood.

“It’s essentially a repackaged apartheid,” says Brookings Institution fellow Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to the Palestinian leadership on negotiations with Israel. “Palestinians would still be stateless. It’s not practicable from the standpoint of modern human rights. You cannot subjugate a people forever and simply say you have permanent autonomy but you can’t be citizens. It’s unworkable.”

Current polls suggest the Jewish Home will win about 14 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset—possibly third place and strong enough to influence any governing coalition to which it belongs. Netanyahu will likely be re-elected as prime minister.

Chances of a deal between Israel and the Palestinians would be sharply reduced by the presence of Bennett’s party in a governing coalition, yet his stand on Palestinian statehood may not be the primary factor driving his popularity, says Dan Arbell, former deputy chief of mission at Israel’s embassy in Washington. Bennett’s youth and charisma have allowed him to connect with Israelis who aren’t otherwise part of the national religious movement backing the Jewish settlement of the West Bank.

But for religious nationalists, Bennett’s appeal is particularly strong—in part because he is so integrated in mainstream Israeli society. He’s a business success story, served in an elite military unit, and lives in Israel proper, rather than an isolated hilltop settlement in the West Bank.

“He’s very much at the centre of Israeli life,” says David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “A lot of religious Zionists resent that they’ve been shoehorned in Israeli life—at least in the media—as settlers. They may not agree with all of his views. Some do. Some don’t.”




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The great right hope: Michael Petrou on the rise of Naftali Bennett

  1. Israel defines itself as a Jewish state and will never accept a nonapartheid democracy with a Jewish minority. Continuing illegal annexations, settlement expansion and ethnic cleansing have also precluded any negotiated two state solution. Justice may now be served only by UN and NATO imposing resolution just as involuntary, disruptive and humiliating to Israel as Israel has wreaked upon occupied Palestine for generations. The Jewish State must be made to recognize an armed Palestine with externally enforced autonomy, eviction of all settlers, true contiguity encompassing Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem together, neither pinched nor parceled, and pay punitive reparations.

    • And now, back to reality…

    • Oh please, not more misinformed anti-israel opinions. Firstly Jews have every legal right to resettle in Judea and Samaria (aka the “West Bank”) which is their homeland. The Levy Report confirmed the legality of doing so. For instance, Hebron which contains the graves of the Jewish patriarchs and is of supreme importance to religious Jews, has actually had a continuous Jewish presence living there for well over 3000 years – only broken briefly during the British Mandate in the 1930s when the British forced the Jews out from Hebron after many Jews were brutally massacred by Arabs there, before the Jewish return just 40 years later.

      Secondly there has never been a distinct “Palestinian” nation, people or country throughout history – “Palestine” was a name invented by the Romans to try – unsuccessfully – to remove the attachment of the Jewish people to their one and only tiny land. Please learn some real history. The concept of “Palestine” as an Arab entity is a very recent invention.

      Thirdly, when Israel offered up territory to Arabs and removed “settlers” from Gaza, it was turned into a launchpad for rockets. Hamas, PLO et al still have in their charters the written intention to destroy Israel completely and to commit genocide against the Jewish people. The problem has not been the willingness of Israel to compromise and to make peace, but has been the lack of willingness on the part of Arabs to accept ANY Jewish state. For instance Yasser Arafat walked away from an offer of 97% of all the land he wanted for a “Palestinian” state in 2000.

      While there may be a Jewish majority in Israel – what else do you expect for the one and only Jewish country on earth?! – the fact is that all citizens, regardless of race, religion or creed, have equal rights to vote, to serve in the Knesset, to go to university, to receive medical care, to express their opinions etc. etc. Arab Israelis actually have far more rights in Israel than they do in any Muslim country. You call the one and only real democracy in the Middle East an apartheid state?!!!! Get real – you have no idea of the truth.

      • Oh please – like ANY pro-Israel supporter can tell the truth – IMPOSSIBLE.
        Lying is all Israel and it’s supporters have – BS constantly and continually; and hope some of it sticks.
        And predictably, it doesn’t – because you’d have to be a complete twit to believe anything these professional liars say(not that calling them out on it will stop these fanatics)..

        • But the Israel Ministry of Propaganda does pay well, I’ve heard…

  2. not accurate. You may have had good intentions, though.

  3. I like this guy – the more idiotic their leaders get the quicker we can remove those losers from Palestine and free our own nations from Zionist corruption and criminality. It’s coming…

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