Israel's Next Political Star: Charismatic and Dangerous

Naftali Bennett, who could emerge as leader of Israel's third largest political part after elections on Jan. 22, is charismatic, media- savvy and super-rich. But his ideas are highly dangerous for those of us who care about the future of a Jewish democratic Israel and a two-state solution.

A poll this week conducted for Israel Channel Two TV found that Bennett's ultranationalist party, "Jewish Home" would gained 12 seats in the next parliament, placing it only behind Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud-Beytenu list with 35 and the opposition Labor Party, forecast to gain 19 seats.

That would give Bennett, who flatly opposes a Palestinian state and advocates an immediate Israeli annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank, a powerful voice in Israeli politics and probably a powerful ministry in a new coalition under Netanyahu.

Bennett, whose parents are both Americans, is already having a huge effect, pushing Netanyahu further and further to the right. According to one Israeli TV report quoting an unnamed minister, the government's announcement last month that it would begin planning a massive new settlement east of Jerusalem on an area known as E1, was at least partially prompted by the Prime Minister's fear that his party was losing ground to the "Jewish Home," in the election campaign.

If built, this settlement would connect Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the huge settlement of Ma'ale Adumim which has a population of around 40,000, creating a continuous wall of settlements splitting the West Bank in half.

So who is Naftali Bennett? According to a profile in the Times of Israel, he grew up in a secular home but became religiously observant at a young age, after attending a Chabad Lubavitch summer camp. He served in the army's elite Sayeret Matkal commando force, which conducted the Entebbe raid and many other daring operations and in which many of Israel's future political leaders including Netanyahu himself have served.

On leaving the military with the rank of major, Bennett co-founded Cyota, a start-up providing online security and anti-fraud software. Six years later, he sold the company for $145 million.

Reporter Uri Misgav wrote in Haaretz earlier this month, "His face is shaven and shiny, his smile radiant, his conduct chummy and generous. He has no beard, no army coat, no Uzi. He seems easy to digest."

Under his leadership, a formerly fusty, dated religious party has become hip. With his combat record and high-tech millions, Bennett potentially has much wider appeal than his fellow ideologue and rival, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Bennett is Lieberman without the Russian accent and the thuggish veneer.

That's what makes his policies so dangerous. Beneath the slick exterior is a political program that will lead Israel to total world isolation and kill any possibility of ever having peace with its neighbors.

The Oslo Accords of 1993 divided the West Bank into three areas: Area A, under full Palestinian control; Area B, under joint Israeli-Palestinian security control and Area C under full Israeli security control.

Bennett proposes immediately annexing Area C, which is 60 percent of the West Bank. "The world will not recognize our sovereignty there anymore than it recognizes it when it comes to the Western Wall and the Golan Heights... never mind - they will get used to it," he said in one interview earlier this year.

As part of this plan, the 48,000 Palestinians living in Area C would be offered Israeli citizenship. "This will pull the rug from under any 'apartheid' argument," he said. "There are 350,000 Israelis living in Area C and only 50,000 Arabs. They will become full-fledged Israeli citizen and according to this plan no one - neither a Jew nor an Arab - would be driven out of his home."

The rest of the Palestinians could have some form of local autonomy in small enclaves, although the Israeli army would continue to maintain full control over their territory, which would be crisscrossed by highways linking the various settlements. Meanwhile, any ties linking the Palestinians of the West Bank with those of the Gaza Strip would be severed.

Bennett doesn't call this a peace plan because he doesn't believe peace between Israel and its neighbors is possible. Instead, he calls it the "Israel Stability Initiative" and it's laid out in a PDF document posted on the Internet, complete with charts and 3D maps.

It doesn't address all of Israel's problems because "no such panacea exists." Since many Israelis, scarred by suicide bombings and rocket attacks, also believe that there is no solution to the conflict, this argument has both wide appeal and a certain perverse logic. If a problem has no solution, it's a waste of time paying it any attention. And if you stop paying attention, then in practice it'd as if there's no problem.

For the Palestinians, Bennett's only offer is economic investment to improve their living standards including "join industrial zones".

This blueprint is of course a fantasy - or more accurately a nightmare that will eventually undermine and destroy the very goal that Bennett most desires - a secure Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

Bennett is just the latest in a long line of Israeli leaders who can't seem to accept that Palestinians cannot be placated with joint industrial zones. The danger of course is that the more Palestinians are left without options, the more they will turn to armed resistance.

Israel was built on the determination of Jews to take control of their own destiny in their own state. Palestinians are motivated by exactly the same desire. Bennett may deny this truth -- but that doesn't mean it's going away.