RAANANA, Israel -- The charismatic new leader of Israel's Jewish
religious right is siphoning a large chunk of votes from the prime
minister's party, according to polls ahead of Jan. 22 elections, and
if the trend continues, the high-tech millionaire and former
commando could emerge as a powerful voice opposing Palestinian
Though Naftali Bennett, the 40-year-old son of American
immigrants, is a classic religious hard-liner, comfortable in the
settlements he champions, he has been able to draw on his military
and entrepreneurial background to widen his appeal to secular
circles as well. His sprawling, modern home in Raanana, an upscale
suburb of Tel Aviv, is far from the barren hilltops of the West Bank
settlers who form the backbone of his support.
Polls show his Jewish Home party becoming the third-largest in
the upcoming parliament, behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's
Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc and the centrist Labor. As Mr. Bennett's
party gains ground, it has been steadily eating into Netanyahu's
still-formidable lead. Several of Mr. Netanyahu's recent moves,
including a surge in settlement construction announcements, have
been attributed to the "Bennett factor."
Philosophically, Mr. Bennett and his party would fit easily into
a hardline government of the type Mr. Netanyahu is expected to put
together, though the political newcomer and the Israeli leader --
his former boss and political mentor -- have a history of bad blood
that deepened over this past week.
Mr. Bennett's campaign has enlivened an otherwise drab election
season. The Jewish Home party currently has five seats in the 120-
member parliament, but polls since Bennett took over the leadership
show it could win up to 15 in the election. Mr. Bennett says his
goal is to broaden the base of his party by appealing to centrist,
secular voters alongside the traditional backing of settlers and
His political message, however, doesn't sound centrist.
"My positions are very clear: I never hide the fact that I
categorically oppose a Palestinian state inside our country," Mr.
Bennett told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. In the
terminology of religiously devout hard-liners, "our country" means
not only Israel, but also the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which the
Palestinians hopes to incorporate into a future state, with east
Jerusalem as its capital.
Mr. Bennett takes pride in his straight-talking campaign and
accuses other politicians -- including Netanyahu -- of being
Mr. Bennett, a father of four, also has an image perhaps more
palatable to the Tel Aviv hipsters he hopes to target: Success on
their secular terms.
After serving in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, Mr.
Bennett made a fortune in the largely secular world of high
technology. In 1999, he co-founded Cyota, an anti-fraud software
company that he sold in 2005 to U.S.-based RSA Security for $145
million. He says he is living in Raanana, rather than a settlement,
for unspecified "personal reasons."
"There is a huge gap between is appearance and his content," said
Amnon Abramovitch, a veteran political commentator for Israel's
Channel 2 TV. "He looks very modern, he speaks very liberally, but
his messages are very extreme."
Political columnist Sima Kadmon said Mr. Bennett's clean, family
image and modern lifestyle blind some of his supporters to his hard-
line positions. …