Israel Upstart Shifts Campaign to Right ; Ex-Aide to Netanyahu Could Transform Country's Governing Coalition

Article excerpt

Naftali Bennett is not a serious contender to be Israel's next prime minister, but his appealing biography and far-right platform could lure voters away from the Likud-Beiteinu ticket.

Naftali Bennett is not a serious contender to be Israel's next prime minister. He has never held elective office, and the faction he represents fills five or seven of the 120 seats in Parliament, depending on how you count.

Yet Mr. Bennett, 40, has emerged a month ahead of the national elections, set for Jan. 22, as perhaps the campaign's most dynamic factor. Newspaper polls show his revamped Jewish Home party poised to become the third largest in the next Parliament, with up to 15 seats, and analysts say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running scared as Mr. Bennett's biography and far-right platform lure voters away from Mr. Netanyahu's dominant Likud-Beiteinu ticket.

While the prime minister is still widely expected to serve another term, the Bennett phenomenon could transform his governing coalition, balancing -- or replacing -- the power of the ultra- Orthodox parties with the more nationalist, modern religious sector that has been fractured in the political sphere for decades. Other modern-Orthodox candidates are also ranked high on rival parties' slates, ensuring their significant numbers in the next Parliament.

"We're talking about political expression of sociological change in Israeli society," said Yedidia Z. Stern, a law professor and vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group. Noting that so-called religious Zionists are ever more prominent in the military, news media, science and business in Israel, Mr. Stern said: "Whatever issue you raise that is a major issue for the state of Israel, the national-religious community has a view that is basically driving the discourse. Bennett is representing it in politics."

The political tensions over Mr. Bennett's ascendance intensified recently, when Mr. Netanyahu seized on Mr. Bennett's comment that, as a reserve officer in the Israeli Army, he would refuse an order to evacuate a Jewish settlement in the West Bank on ideological grounds. The prime minister said someone who would refuse had no place in his government. Mr. Bennett quickly recanted, but the attacks have continued.

"Here you see for the first time Netanyahu is really fighting in a serious way someone from the right," Mr. Stern said. "I see a real chance that the new coalition will be based on a different kind of transaction."

Mr. Bennett's prominence is one of several forces pushing Mr. Netanyahu to the right. After merging with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, Likud yielded in its primary a far more conservative list than its current Parliament membership. At the official campaign kickoff Tuesday, there was no mention of a two- state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- which Mr. Netanyahu has supported.

As a major in the army reserve who served in the prestigious Sayeret Matkal unit, then made a fortune in Israel's booming technology industry, Mr. Bennett embodies one popular vision of the modern Zionist ideal. He wears the knitted skullcap that is the religious-Zionist signature, but lives in the affluent town of Raanana, north of Tel Aviv -- and not in a West Bank settlement -- because, he said, his wife is secular.

They have four children, ages 7 to 1, and Mr. Bennett has said he does not believe a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is achievable in their lifetime.

So, instead of peace, he talks about annexation -- as in, Israel should annex the nearly two-thirds of the West Bank known as Area C, which is home to 350,000 Jewish settlers. In his view, the Palestinians who live there -- estimates range from Mr. Bennett's 48,000 to the United Nations' 150,000 -- could then apply for Israeli citizenship, akin to those who live within Israel's borders from 1948. Then he would try to remove checkpoints to ease traffic and movement throughout the region, and, he said in a recent interview, "make a grocery list of 20 things we could do to make life better" for both Jews and Palestinians living in the territory. …

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