Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson
Program Manager
23.12.2012 commentary by Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson

Naftali Bennett's Election: The Dawning of a New Era for the Israeli Right

Naftali Bennett's primary success as the new head of the HaBayit HaYehudi Party marks both the end of an era for the national religious and perhaps the beginning of one for the left

Naftali Bennett's sweeping victory of HaBayit HaYehudi (the Jewish Home) Party's primary elections marks the end of a political era in Israel. By explicitly declaring the National Religious Party (NRP) the new political home of right-leaning secular voters, Bennett may have unintentionally highlighted a dramatic byproduct of his new strategy: fascilitating the death of the NRP as we know it. In this sense, Bennett follows in the footsteps of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who recently merged his Yisrael Beiteinu Party with with the Prime Minister's Likud. In fact, Bennett’s election completes the buildup of a large, stable political block on the right, one which effectively manages to traverse several sectorial lines. This new right-wing bloc presents several significant political implications that warrant observation.

The Rise and Fall of the NRP

Since the first Israeli Knesset of 1948 through the dramatic elections of 1977 when the Likud first came to power, the NRP (MAFDAL) was a middle-of-the-road party with a stable electorate of 8.5-10% (10-12 seats of 120 in the Knesset). Then, the NRP billed itself as the party to advance the special interests of the Israeli national religious sector. With such a mandate, it consistently took part in all coalitions formed between 1948 and 1977. After 1977, with the notable exception of the 1996 (post-Rabin's assassination) government, the NRP was cut in half, and dwindled to 5-6 seats in a good year, and eventually reached an all-time low of 3 Knesset seats in the last two elections.

We can identify two parallel processes that contributed to this decline. First, new ethnic parties such as Tami (founded 1981) and Shas gained strength and attracted voters of Middle Eastern origin away from the NRP. Simultaneously, more ideological right-wing parties appeared, and the more hawkish line of Tehiyah (founded 1979) or the contemporary National union, also drew voters who might otherwise have voted with the national religious bloc. The NRP thus lost several supporting groups, and shrank to a size proportional to its core constituency. Lacking the default support of these voters, the NRP was left to gradually vanish, the justification for a religious right-leaning party naturally diminishing in a political marketplace that offered a plethora of parties either more religious or farther right.

Naftali Bennett would appear to follow this line of logic, and seems to reject the NRP in its traditional form. He has made it clear that the NRP, newly minted "Jewish Home", is doomed so long as it remains a sector-based and does not open its ranks to new constituencies. 

But there is a flipside to Bennett's move towards broad appeal. The end of the NRP as a sector party signifies a deep shift — the national religious community in Israel has gone from a minority sector constantly struggling to secure its basic rights to participate in the Israeli political game, to a significant element of the leading elite in contemporary Israeli politics. The national religious group might still wear their grandfathers' kippot, but this is certainly not their grandfathers' MAFDAL. 

Previously, the line national religious politicians took centered around conceiving of and implementing the settlement project, which earned it relatively few supporters in the broader Israeli public in general, and even fewer in the secular Israeli elite in particular. Since the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, the national religious sector has gained significant traction with wider audiences throughout Jewish Israel. "Settling the hearts", as the conductors of this dramatic shift like to call it, has been an effective campaign, and is the tactic responsible for the fact that a variety of key positions in Israel's civil service, government authority, political corridors and, above all, security establishments, are held by members of the national religious community. One need look only as far as the tops of their heads: some forty percent of IDF officers wear a kippa, and that number is rising.

The knitted kippa, the identifying mark of the national religious community, has become increasingly  visible within the media, judicial, and educational systems, to the point where many Mr. Netanyahu's senior staff (photo above) are donning the garment. A complaint by National union MK Yaakov Katz ("Ketzale"), himself a proud son of the NRP, during a parliamentary debate over representation in the supervising council for the National Broadcast Authority (02/07/2012) best expresses the sense of new entitlement felt by the national religious: 

It is unacceptable that the "wearers of the kippa" comprise 50 percent of cadets in officers' academy, but only 5 percent of the broadcast authority's council. If we are able to shoot properly, then we are also able to do broadcasting.

What this statement and Naftali Bennet’s call for broader support both imply is that the national religious community today simply does not feel the need for a party that serves them specifically or defends their interests directly. They are no longer a minority in a discriminating secular-socialist Jewish majority; those days are over. National religious figures have been integrated into top positions at all levels of all public authority — a kind of "mission accomplished". In this context, Bennett's victory should not be viewed as the beginning of the end for the NRP, but as a crystal clear expression of a massive power gain, one that strengthens the national religious community on all fronts. 

Bennett and Lieberman — Two Parties, One Voice

Bennett brings a powerful ideological dowry to the new right-wing bloc; he is the new voice of the settlement movement, a movement which has dropped the old arguments of "Greater Israel" to replaced them with secularized language of security and rights. Together with several other prominent figures in the new settlement leadership, Bennett focuses on the larger Israeli interest of perpetuating Jewish presence in the West Bank, discarding the conventional Messianic discourse of the old NRP for claims that maintaining the occupied territories will not only keep Israeli settlers safe, but Israelis within the Green Line as well. Wholly new arguments, drawing on human rights discourse, have also been born: declarations that home eviction is a violation of human rights are becoming an increasingly popular trope.

As part and parcel of his strategy, Bennett published a plan to annex all rural Palestinian areas in the West Bank (i.e. Area C), areas which would include approximately 365,000 settlers currently living there, as well as close to 50,000 Palestinians, according to his count. (Most other censuses estimate a significantly larger number of Palestinian residents.) Bennett even promises to grant these Palestinians full Israeli citizenship, neutralizing potential accusations of apartheid so often directed at right-wing annexationist initiatives. Another Bennett plan promises to grant those who completed either military or other national civil service a free plot of land in one of several areas he defines as part of the “periphery”: the Galilee in the North, the Negev in the South, and, of course, the West Bank. This initiative, unfeasible for a host of reasons, fuses a few of Bennett's key tenets. Among them, his wish to obfuscate the differences between the periphery within the Green Line and the settlements beyond it; his interest to reinforce the settlement project by attracting young, preferably secular-liberal, families to live on occupied land; accelerating the pace of Jewish gentrification of the Galilee and the Negev (today, predominantly populated by Arabs and Bedouins); and finally, privileging specific Jewish Israeli groups over others who are either prevented from serving in the military or who choose not to do so; namely Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations.

Both of Bennett's plans either resemble or go hand in hand with Avigdor Lieberman's declared policies. Lieberman has not only been at the forefront of campaigns promoting compulsory military or civil service for all Israelis, but his party is also responsible for recent legislation attempting to build support for a kind of affirmative action for currently-serving populations. Moreover, Lieberman's foreign policy also includes annexing territories of Area C into the State of Israel, either through final negotiations or as punishment for unilateral moves in the UN

If, as current predictions indicate, Netanyahu builds the next Knesset coalition with Bennett and Lieberman in dominant positions, the Prime Minister's aversion to overt annexation of occupied lands would become almost untenable. This sensibility can be seen in Netanyahu’s recent lingering over accepting Justice Edmond Levi's settlement report and his decision to evict the Giv'at Ha'ulpana settlement. In both cases, Netanyahu managed to maintain a relatively moderate policy from within his coalition, which took into consideration both international law and public opinion. But it is questionable if he'll be able to keep up such moderation with Lieberman and Bennett at his heels. The Prime Minister's past rifts with Bennett, who objected to Mrs. Netanyahu’s intimate involvement in her husband's political work, will not prevent Bennett from joining a new right-wing coalition as a senior partner. Together with Likud Ministers Gideon Sa'ar, Yuli Edelstein and Yisrael Katz, and, of course, Avigdor Lieberman, Bennett is likely to push hard for the annexation of the majority of occupied West Bank territories, at least in word if not in actions. 

Bennett's Stable Right-Wing Bloc Renders Participation Futile for Center-Left

Finally, Bennett's new political position has implications for centrist and left-wing Israeli politics. For many on the left or even in the center of Israel’s political map, a bloc led by Bennett, Lieberman and Netanyahu will equal the sum of their worst fears. Such a bloc, with its presumable parliamentary stability, ostensible ideological clarity, and proven executive determination is likely to take the policymaking ability of the current coalition to a new level. It would likely increase discrimination against and disenfranchisement of non-Jewish minorities on both sides of the '67 line; it would also work with gusto to stultify the two-state option — the proposal most likely to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and finally, it would do its best to silence dissident and critical voices within Israeli society by promoting anti-democratic legislation that would work against progressive voices and support campaigns to delegitimize them.

Putting these fears aside for a moment, the clear conclusion of this analysis is that any party of the center-left which deigns to take part in such a Netanyahu-led coalition that relies on the two prominent power-bases of the right — Russian and national religious — is destined for failure. Parties from the center or left joining Mr. Netanyahu's next coalition will be powerless to influence its policies from within; simply because they will have no capacity to threaten the coalition’s stability. A center-left party willing to join Mr. Netanyahu's coalition would thus not only fail its voters, but is liable to further erode the ideological and political power of the center-left bloc. It is important that every party left of Likud running in the coming elections take this into account as they consider their options in the 19th Israeli Knesset.

But the emergence of such a wide and well-defined right-wing bloc is nothing to despair. On the contrary, it poses a real opportunity for the center and center-left to do some serious restructuring. The new right bloc can serve as a model for the Israeli center and center-left, and the center-left should feel duty-bound to organize as a worthy alternative. Lieberman and Netanyahu’s unification, complemented by Bennett's sweeping triumph in the primaries, can pave the way for a new center-left block, one that might rise above ideological and sectorial divisions to promote a powerful joint agenda. In this new bloc, the democratic block, Jews and Arabs should join forces to offer a clear political vision, well distinguished from that of the right. It must entail, roughly, an end to Israeli occupation through a viable Palestinian state along the ‘67 borders; full personal and communitarian civil equality for all citizens; a clear, yet elaborate, vision for a sustainable welfare economy; and finally, a new vision for Israeli security based not on paralyzing fear, but rather on recognition of Israel's power and ability to enter strategic regional alliances with its neighbors. For the left, Bennett signals that there is a lot of work ahead. The only question is whether the left will rise to the challenge.

Share article