Naftali Bennett Is Face of Israel's New Right Wing

High-Tech Mogul Turned Around Religious Zionist Party

The Right Look: Naftali Bennett looks more like a high-tech millionaire than a hard-right Israeli politician. And that’s the point.
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The Right Look: Naftali Bennett looks more like a high-tech millionaire than a hard-right Israeli politician. And that’s the point.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published January 14, 2013, issue of January 18, 2013.
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The leaders from the late ’60s to now, with one exception, were educators who were respected inside their community but largely relied on a sense of communal loyalty from voters rather than an ability to generate enthusiasm, and had little if any appeal to the non-Orthodox. The sleek 40-year-old Bennett, by contrast, embodies the “Start-up Nation” phenomenon, wooing Religious Zionists who had wandered from the party, and non-Orthodox voters who have never before considered it. “The appeal is that he doesn’t look like a settler but a young successful Israeli, and isn’t afraid of expressing very strong positions and attacking Netanyahu,” Sheafer said.

For all Bennett’s attributes, his success has hinged on the unprecedented unity among the Religious Zionist leadership. The Orthodox media has carried advertisements with dozens of rabbis, ranging from moderates to hard-liners, declaring their support for him, and there have been hardly any attacks on his moderate religious views.

This appears to be the result of lessons learned from the nightmare scenario for the party in the last election: It had announced a grand re-branding and merger with other Religious Zionist factions, but disagreements over details led to the mergers falling apart and to Jewish Home, which was merely a renamed NRP, being punished at the polls and receiving just three of the 120 Knesset seats. This time around, it has merged with other factions from the National Union Party, and any internal disagreements that have arisen have been muted.

Bennett has been working hard to ensure that he pleases the moderates and the hard-liners in the Religious Zionist camp, as well as non-Orthodox potential voters. What appeared to be an unwelcome controversy in late December 2012 helped him with this task. He said during a television interview that his “conscience wouldn’t allow” him to evacuate a settlement if he were asked to do so during reservist duty. Under heavy pressure from other parties, he subsequently retracted his comment.

Instead of suffering in opinion polls, Bennett’s numbers rose. He had demonstrated to the hard-liners despite his Ra’anana residence just how attached to the West Bank he feels, and that he took his conviction on the matter as far as was politically acceptable, while showing others that he knew when to back down. Throughout the campaign, he has been proposing annexing a significant part of the West Bank, but this has received little media attention. His comments on evacuation, however, catapulted him to the top of the news agenda and, after four years of confusion regarding exactly what the party stands for, sent a message that while Jewish Home is still working out its own red lines, its main priority will be territory.

As pollster Rafi Smith put it: “The vast majority of people who define themselves as religious are united by the fact that they are hawkish and believe in retaining the whole Land of Israel, and he has managed to downplay differences in the community and unite people around this.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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