THE BLOG

The Israeli Elections and the New Right

The upcoming Israeli elections, scheduled for January 22nd, seem to be a non-event. Contrary to many campaigns in the past, which always were depicted by the contestants as "crucial" and "historic," this campaign can be well defined as lukewarm, if not outright as "boring."

It may be that Israel follows in the footsteps of many other Western democracies, and its electorate has finally come to regard politics as one of those things that are a necessity of a democratic regime, but not an existential issue. Maybe because Israelis feel more secure about their state's future, maybe because there are no more politicians who belong to the era of the founding fathers. Shimon Peres, the last Mohican of this generation, is state president, a largely symbolic position.

Be that as it may, the campaign is quiet, so quiet that many Israelis will need a collective alarm clock to ring the bell and send them to vote. The predictions are that even they will not bring a turnout of over 70 percent, which in Israeli terms is very low. Yet, this campaign seems to provide its rising, as well as falling heroes, and the emerging hero of the campaign seems to be Naftali Bennett. Naftali who? Well, many Israelis have never heard his name until very recently. Now, very few of those who intend to vote can evade hearing his name. Bennett was a soldier in an elite Army unit, then established a successful high tech company, sold it at the age of 33, and with his partner, netted $145 million. Following that course is not so unique in Israel, where high tech is a national passion, one that has become the secular religion of many ambitious youngsters, the main engine of the flourishing Israeli economy.

So far so ordinary, but then, Naftali Bennett is not an ordinary person. He is a devout Orthodox Jew, a supporter of the settlers movement, in Israeli terms an impeccable right-winger. After selling his business, he turned to public life, became PM Netanyahu bureau chief, left the job with acrimony towards the Likud leader, and subsequently became the CEO of the Settlers Council, resigned from that job and established an extra-parliamentary movement called "Israel Shely" [My Israel], composed of both religious and secular Jews, and used this group as a stepping stone towards the takeover of the near-moribund National Religious Party and its sister "National Union" party. Jointly they command only five seats in the current Knesset. Polls taken today give his party, called now the "Jewish Home," from 12 to 15 seats! Moreover, the young Bennett has become the pivotal figure of the entire campaign. Put in sum, Naftali Bennett is considered a superstar.

Notwithstanding the upcoming final results, his success until now requires an explanation. The man is a charismatic, smooth and polished speaker, and a good user of new and social media -- but what about the message. Here, it is becoming a much fuzzier picture. He opposes the two-state solution, wants to formally annex to Israel the main settlement blocks, and give the remaining Palestinian population some kind of limited self rule. Practical? Not really. New? Not at all, as the idea of self-rule was floated around by the late Menachem Begin over 30 years ago, and failed to lead to a settlement with the Palestinians.

What is more, the plan can, at best, be greeted with derision, by even Israel's best friends, and all this from a man who should know more, as a successful businessman, about the importance of world trade, international connections or lack thereof for the state of Israel. Still, his message, which also includes support for refusal to obey orders to evacuate more settlements, seems to appeal to many because it projects a plan, though wholly unrealistic, as opposed to the static approach of Netanyahu and Lieberman, as well as the center parties, Labor and the nearly extinct Left, which seem bent on the assumption, rejected by most Israelis, that there is a viable Palestinian partner.

It seems, that Bennett may represent the new right of Israel. He symbolizes for many the combination of unashamed nationalism with a drive to professional and financial success, and all this while being able to cross the dividing line between Orthodox and secular Jews. As rabbis known for their militant positions are hidden from the public eye, Bennett's successful media blitz is viewed as an indication that the Zionist right is really changing and broadening its appeal.

But what about reality? Bennett is surely not the man that can lead to peace talks, nor does he seem even interested in such a prospect, moreover, the hidden rabbis will reappear the day after the elections, and will make their voice heard. So, is it cosmetics and PR only on the part of Bennett? Many voters believe it is not, though there are enough signals leading to the contrary.

However, if Bennett will end up as a big winner in less than a month and then become a senior partner in the new Netanyahu government, it will come to show that a thirst for change existed in the country, which the old guard politicians of both the right and left have failed to address.

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