Israeli Voters Flock to 'Brother' Naftali Bennett - but Not All His Policies

Article excerpt

Every Israeli election season, theres a politician with a provocative message who spurs his party to prominence and popularity.

In 2009, that was Avigdor Lieberman, who brought his ultra- nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party into coalition with the leading Likud party, becoming a central voice in Israeli politics. This time, the breakout candidate is Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, a former settler leader who opposes a Palestinian state and has proposed that Israel annex most of the West Bank.

But Mr. Bennetts appeal lies somewhere other than his policies. He is a new, young face in politics, a former commando, and a self- made high-tech industry millionaire who offers out-of-the-box policy prescriptions reflecting an unconventional combination of feel-good Zionist patriotism with the middle-class populism of Israels 2011 social protest movement. That has helped him breathe new life into the stultified pro-settler party of religious Zionists, and allowed it to engage new constituencies despite running candidates with extreme religious and political opinions.

"The job of the party I represent has always been to worry about the religious. I dont want a sectoral [narrow-based] party," Bennett said at a meeting in Tel Aviv with a demographic far outside the definition of Jewish Home's typical supporters: largely secular Russian-Israeli yuppies. "I want a party thats open to the secular... the Israeli patriot... and to be the lobby of all the people."

This all-embracing pitch has helped him siphon away support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, making the rivalry on the right one of the major story lines of the campaign and prompting Likud to move further rightward in an effort to stop losing voters to Jewish Home.

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The Jewish Home party is the offspring of the National Religious Party, which began in the center of Israels political map in the 1960s and 1970s but moved to the far right as Orthodox Israelis became increasingly identified with expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The party saw its parliamentary seats dwindle from 12 in 1977 to a low of three in 2009, at which point it renamed itself "Jewish Home."

According to an Israel Radio poll released last week, support for the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu joint candidate list dropped from 39 seats in December to 34 (out of 120 total seats in the parliament). Bennetts Jewish Home party gained three in the same time period, bringing its projected total up to 14 seats. The Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu parties control 42 seats altogether in the outgoing parliament, while Jewish Home, together with a second party it teamed up with, control 7 seats.

'Bro' appeal

Jewish Home campaign material portrays Bennett as everyones favorite army buddy, and he addresses voters as achi (Hebrew slang for bro), reflecting how he has tried to appeal to unifying motifs for Israeli Jews. In commercials, he expresses frustration with Israels inconclusive military campaigns against Hamas and laments that the media isnt patriotic enough, while waxing nostalgic for a time when Israelis could be proud of the Jewish state without "feeling ashamed." He calls for an end to the "hateful discourse" between secular and religious Jews in Israel, and between left and right.

"I love the land of Israel, I love the people of Israel, the Torah of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces," he says. "I love our soldiers. If you feel like me, you have a home."

But, in a nod to the broad Israeli public, he tells audiences that the land of Israel is not the central issue of Jewish Home. Bennett has also borrowed some of the populist themes of Israels socio-economic protest movement of 2011, vowing to bring down real estate prices, fight against the concentration of businesses in the hands of Israels tycoons, break up powerful unions and help young working families who cant make ends meet a situation he described as "anti-Zionist" to his Russian audience in Tel Aviv. …