Tel Aviv — In 2010, the Forward profiled Naftali Bennett, who has emerged as the biggest surprise of the current Israeli election campaign. He was a man with a vision — but also with a problem.
The pro-settlement politician was starting to appeal to the hearts and minds of his constituency, but plenty of would-be followers had trouble taking him seriously.
Daniella Weiss, former mayor of Kedumim in the West Bank and an icon of hard-line settlers, spoke for many at the time when she said she regarded him as an “outsider.” Bennett was at the time CEO of the Yesha Council, the main settler umbrella organization, and Weiss said that he wasn’t qualified for the job.
Bennett, now leader of the Jewish Home Party, which is expected to place third in the January 22 elections, is a self-described “moderate Orthodox,” and his wife is secular. He grew up in Haifa and lives in affluent Ra’anana — both of them far from the territories. Yet he has managed to unite the previously fragmented Religious Zionist camp, something that prestigious rabbis failed to do ahead of the last election.
The story of Jewish Home’s rise under Bennett is the story of a major change in the nature of Religious Zionist politics. After near obliteration in the 2009 election, the faction — until that year it was known as the National Religious Party — realized that it had to modernize or die, and that the expectation that it would receive the Religious Zionist community’s votes out of a sense of loyalty was outdated.
A relatively closed clique ran the party: leaders were not elected but chosen and while there was some reform in 2008 and 2009, it was limited. This campaign season began, for the first time, with primaries, allowing Bennett, a previously unknown quantity in Jewish Home, to convince members to entrust the party to him. “Everything that happened now is what we wanted four years ago,” revealed Asher Cohen, who was a member of Jewish Home’s public committee in 2009.
Cohen was talking about not only elections, but also what they brought about — a young energetic leader who won back many Religious Zionists who had started voting for larger parties, and one who made the strategic move of including a secular candidate, Ayelet Shaked, and securing nonreligious votes.
Former NRP head Yitzhak Levy, who represented the party in the Knesset for two decades, said that he has watched the recent surge in popularity with amazement, admitting, “Bennett succeeded where we couldn’t, by bringing a lot of non-Orthodox yet traditional people to the party.”
But beyond the democratization of the party and Bennett’s innovations, there is a deeper story of Religious Zionist identity at play.