No one is expecting a big surprise in Israel’s national election two weeks from now. The polls say Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party is in good shape to win the vote and give Netanyahu another term as prime minister. But there is one new political personality who has kept things interesting.
Naftali Bennett is Netanyahu’s former chief of staff. And he is posing a challenge to the prime minister by espousing policies even further to the right than those of his former boss.
Bennett does not neatly fit into the usual character types in Israeli politics. He is a 40-year-old high-tech entrepreneur, who likes to talk about economic justice. He is a veteran of an elite army unit and an observant Jew motivated by religious ideology above all else. But his political party includes secular Israelis too.
In recent weeks, Bennett’s Jewish Home party has surged in the polls. It’s projected to win the third-most seats in parliament by grabbing support from voters on the Israeli right. These are people who might otherwise choose Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
The biggest policy difference between Bennett and his political opponents on the right and left though is probably how they talk about the idea of a Palestinian state.
“I believe I’m the only one, and our party is the only party on this podium, that opposes founding a Palestinian state within the land of Israel, between the Jordan and the Mediterranean,” Bennett said today during an election debate at Hebrew University.
Bennett said it’s time for Israel to take “a fresh look” at an old problem.
“If a Palestinian state would be founded – just a few hundred meters from here, by the way, we’re on Mount Scopus right now – it would ensure sort of the Hobbesian lifestyle of eternal strife and miserable life between us and the Palestinians.”
Bennett accuses the current Israeli government of pursuing a “confused policy” in the occupied West Bank. Essentially, he’s saying that Netanyahu has promised all things to all sides. For right-wing Israelis, the prime minister is building settlements. For the US and the rest of the international community, he says Netanyahu is ready to talk about a two-state solution.
But Bennett says the best thing for Israel is to annex large parts of the West Bank, including most of the Jewish settlements.
“Every time over the past 20 years that we handed over land, either with an agreement or without an agreement,” Bennett told the audience of students, diplomats and journalists, “we got as a result war [and] misery for both sides.” And there is no reason why Israel should go down that road again, Bennett argues.
His critics say such views add up to dangerous extremism. Candidate Isaac Herzog of the Labor Party said Tuesday Bennett’s candidacy has already pushed the ruling Likud Party and its ideological allies further to the right.
“They will not be able in any way,” Herzog said, “to be proactive or move forward on any plan that gives any hope for the region. And that means we are doomed to eternal conflict and bloodshed.”
The question is, will Bennett and his Jewish Home party have an even greater impact on Israeli policy after the election? Political science professor Reuven Hazan of Hebrew University said the answer to that question is “yes and no,” depending on whether Bennett and his party join the next coalition government.
“Yes, …because the more seats he gets the more prominent of a position he will have if he’s part of the governing coalition,” Hazan said. “The ‘no’ answer …he might push Netanyahu to bring in parties from the center into the coalition and keep him out. Because bringing him in would be too expensive and ideologically too extreme.”
One thing to know about the Jewish Home party, Hazan said, is that some of its other candidates are even more extreme than Naftali Bennett. So they are letting Bennett be the public face for the party.
In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, Bennett was asked: if he does join the next coalition government, would he actively try to prevent the two state solution from becoming reality?
“I’ll do everything in my ability to prevent Israel from committing suicide knowingly. It doesn’t make sense.”
Yes, most of the rest of the world supports the two state solution, Bennett said. And that includes Israel’s most important allies in Europe and the United States. But he added that this is one of those instances in history where the common wisdom is wrong.