Changing the face of Israeli politics -- and the future of the Mideast conflict.
For the Israeli media, the upcoming January 22, 2013 elections have trumped, for the time being, many of the critical issues facing the Jewish State. Such concerns as the continued bloodletting in Syria, the creeping Islamization of Egypt under President Mohamad Morsi, or the Iranian nuclear bomb, are not top headline grabbing news. The rise of Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party in the polls is, however, a major news item.
This 40-year old software tycoon and a veteran of Israel’s elite unit Sayeret Matkal has captured his party’s (Ha’Bayit Ha’Yehudi or The Jewish Home) leadership. He resurrected the moribund National Religious Party, and has energized Israel’s electorate with his straight talk, charisma, and common sense. Bennett has simply become a phenomenon in the Israeli media, which has been rather unkind to religious Zionists. In Bennett’s case, however, a secular following is almost as large as his religious supporters. The London based The Independent (January 2, 2013) pointed out that Bennett, who has never held office before “has shaken up the campaign to such an extent that Prime Minister Netanyahu has gone on the offensive against Bennett.”
Bennett’s family hails originally from San Francisco, CA, and he currently lives in the Judean community of Neve Daniel. In his early thirties, following his military service, Bennett founded Cyota, a start-up software company, which he sold to the U.S. security firm RSA for an estimated $145 million. He subsequently became bureau chief of staff to Netanyahu, resigning two years (2006-2008) later after falling out with him and then assuming leadership of the settler’s council (Judea and Samaria or Yesha) until he was elected head of Ha’Bayit Ha’Yehudi.
In a recent television interview, Bennett remarked that as a soldier he would not obey orders to evacuate settlers from their homes. Netanyahu pounced on this and Bennett qualified his initial statement. But the extraordinary exposure he achieved only strengthened his support. And, in an interview with the Associated Press, Bennett stated, “My positions are very clear: I never hide the fact that I categorically oppose a Palestinian state inside our country.” He intimated to Israel’s Channel Two TV that “The fact that the entire world says something does not mean it is correct.” And he added, “The move by Netanyahu to recognize a Palestinian State seven minutes from Ra’anana is delusional and a mistake.”
On December 20, 2012, Bennett told Arutz Sheva-TV that he would propose to the Knesset that Israel annex Area C “and offer citizenship to some 50,000 Arabs.” Bennett has been delivering this message for a long while, long before the Likud Knesset candidates began to harp on the issue. Area C is under full control of Israel’s civil and military authorities, specified under the Oslo Accords and approved by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Area C contains virtually all the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria, and only 4% of the Palestinians live in this zone. The Palestinian-Arabs are almost exclusively in Areas A and B (cities and villages of the West Bank) as defined by the Oslo II Interim Agreement of 1995.
Bennett has made the idea of annexing Area C part of the Jewish Home party platform, and he pointed out that there are more than 300,000 Jews living there and only 55,000 Arabs. He expressed no illusions about the Arab residents of Area C embracing the idea of Israeli citizenship. “They probably will refuse to be citizens, and will opt for permanent residency,” Bennett said, and added that “Arab residents of Area C might consider the same status held currently by some Arab residents of Jerusalem.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ call on the U.N. to force Israel to welcome into the West Bank Syrian refugees, who, decades earlier fled the Jewish State along with tens of thousands of their descendants, has found a response in Bennett’s proposal to annex Area C. The area comprises almost 60% of the West Bank. Bennett furthermore stated that the annexation of Area C is the only viable response to the terrible idea of the “Two State Solution.” Bennett believes that this will prevent the Palestinian Arabs from establishing an army (Netanyahu at his Bar-Ilan University speech called for a demilitarized West Bank) as well as prevent the absorption of Syrian or Jordanian refugees.
With a slate that includes many young newcomers, Bennett launched an extraordinary campaign, which, according to a recent poll, propelled the party to possibly gaining 15 seats, an incredible achievement. The bulk of his supporters are under forty and many are nonobservant.
Considering the fact that the National Religious Party (Mafdal), which dissolved in 2008 and merged into the Jewish Home party, received only 12 seats at its best performance in 1959-65, 1969-74, 1977-81, and only 3 seats in the last Knesset, the prospect of 15 seats is nothing less than historical in scope for this truly idealistic party dedicated to the love of the land of Israel, the People of Israel, and the Torah of Israel.
According to a Talseker TNS Institute poll conducted on Sunday, December 30, 2012, questioning 500 individuals ages 18 and up, the Jewish Home party with Naftali Bennett was placed as the third vote-getting party. It followed the center-right Likud-Beitenu with a projected 34 seats in the 120 seat Israeli Knesset (Parliament), led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and the center-left Labor with Shelly Yechimovich on top of the list with 18. The Bayit Yehudi party and Bennett came third with 15, and still rising.
The Likud-Israel Beitenu merger that currently holds 42 seats in the Knesset is on a downward spiral. Israel Beitenu party chairman Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation a month before the elections, after he was informed of pending charges, has hurt the Likud. Still, the Likud will most likely be forming the next government with Netanyahu as Prime Minister.
Israel in 2013 is a right-center-leaning nation, and the Right-Religious Bloc, with a projected 66 mandates, is far ahead of the Left Bloc with 54. The big question in the upcoming elections is only whether Likud-Beitenu will have a strong showing, or as it appears now, the right-of-center parties, especially Bennett’s Jewish Home, will continue to gain at the Likud’s expense. Voters guess that Netanyahu will emerge as the next PM, and are moving to the smaller right-wing parties to offset a too-powerful Netanyahu. They want a government with a more Jewish and traditional character, and rely on Bennett to provide that.
The Israeli media dominated by the Left has enjoyed the beating the Likud has received in the polls from Bennett and his Jewish Home party. But even the ill-wishers of the Left have been surprised by the Naftali Bennett phenomenon.
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