After Duma, a very narrow bridge for Naftali Bennett

As the political leader of Orthodox Zionism freely admits, the existence of Jewish terrorism threatens to upend all that his community has toiled to build

Elie Leshem is deputy editor of The Times of Israel.

File: Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a bible study seminar at Herzog College in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut on July 20, 2015. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
File: Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a bible study seminar at Herzog College in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut on July 20, 2015. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

On Wednesday morning in Jerusalem, Naftali Bennett drew new battle lines. In a speech to Zionist Orthodox education leaders at a conference organized by Arutz 7, a mainstay news outlet of the settlement movement, the education minister addressed persistent rumors to the effect that the Shin Bet security service had been torturing suspected Jewish extremists.

The suspects, who the Shin Bet says firebombed the Palestinian Dawabsha family in their sleep last July, killing 18-month-old Ali and his parents, are “terrorists,” Bennett asserted, and their objective is to “dismantle the state.” Thus, he continued, the Israeli government has made the decision to treat them as terrorists, with all that the label entails.

“Those who, like us, support the Shin Bet’s actions on Palestinian terrorism, whose objective is to save Jewish lives, can’t oppose them when they’re applied to Jewish terrorism,” he said, acknowledging that the suspects were deprived of sleep and access to their attorneys while denying that they were tortured. “Only those who opposed the use of extreme measures toward Palestinian terrorism have the moral right to oppose the use of the same tools – or less [severe ones] – toward Jewish terrorism.”

It was a gutsy, if necessary, move for the Jewish Home party leader, one which he knew would alienate the sizable portion of his base that has been vehemently protesting in recent days — in social media and in the streets — over the Shin Bet’s alleged mistreatment of the suspects, whom it has taken to calling “the children.” The fury was sparked by allegations, floated by the suspects’ attorneys, of excruciating, medieval torments (even the spine-chilling “bed of Sodom,” which is like the rack, only worse, figured in their accounts, along with more mundane accusations of sexual abuse), and engulfed lawmakers from Bennett’s own party.

In his speech, Bennett referred ominously to “an event of extreme significance for religious Zionism and the State of Israel.” It was a “critical moment” for his people, the nationalist Orthodox, who in recent years have come to fill dominant positions in the country’s leadership. “Do we take responsibility for the State of Israel?” he challenged.

The new nationalist camp

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-economy minister Naftali Bennett confer during a Knesset plenum session, July 29, 2013 (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-economy minister Naftali Bennett confer during a Knesset plenum session, July 29, 2013 (Flash90)

Bennett, as he reiterated on Wednesday, sees his constituents, and particularly the community of Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria, as the vanguard of a messianic (I offer that term here without its pejorative connotations) project to rule the Land of Israel, fulfilling a divine, biblical promise. Tellingly, during a television interview on the following evening, he described himself as the leader of “the nationalist camp and religious Zionism.” In Israel, the term “nationalist camp” traditionally denotes the right as a whole; naturally, most people would consider Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu its leader.

It was a subtle dig that not only established Bennett’s ultimate political ambition, but also invoked a thesis that much of his constituency holds to be true: that Likud — certainly in its current guise — and Netanyahu are relics, doomed to make way for him and his people. More importantly, he dog-whistled, the prime minister, having conceded the inevitability of Palestinian statehood, even if in the hazy future and diluted by many caveats, isn’t truly “nationalist.” Netanyahu has departed from the sacred confluence of the State of Israel and the greater Land of Israel, from the River to the Sea.

Religious Zionism, which over the last few decades has become practically synonymous with the settlement enterprise, has been establishing itself as a dominant new elite in Israel, gaining significant influence and winning key leadership roles in the army, government and media, while maintaining a politically valuable underdog veneer. If it weren’t for the single-minded potency of Netanyahu, the thought of an Orthodox politician ascending the premiership in the next elections would be commonplace.

For a decade now, ever since the Second Intifada and the pullout from Gaza dampened hopes for peace with the Palestinians in our time, religious Zionism has been settling in the heart of an Israeli consensus that grows progressively more conservative. Meanwhile, Bennett and his party have been courting secular politicians, from the smashing success of Ayelet Shaked to the embarrassing flop that was Yinon Magal, with the intention of forming an inverted Likud of sorts, where the non-Orthodox are a young, cool minority. If it is to march onward — in a process that, according to most Zionist Orthodox leaders, must culminate with the secular state birthing a kingdom of God — the settlement enterprise cannot afford to alienate the mainstream.

Even more than the shocking attack in Duma, it was a video released Wednesday night, showing dozens of Jewish extremists reveling in the killing of the baby Ali Dawabsha during a ghoulish, stomach-churning wedding dance, that drove home the precariousness of not only Bennett’s position, but that of his entire public.

Hence the hurriedness and tenacity with which Bennett has been distancing himself from the suspected terrorists, who, he implied, were planning further attacks against Palestinian civilians; from their supporters; and from those many within his community who have been railing against the Shin Bet’s alleged treatment of them: The images in that vile wedding video, and the indictments likely to be served in the coming days, detailing past and planned atrocities and other anarchistic machinations, threaten to drive a wedge between Judea and Samaria and Israel proper. When he thundered that Jewish extremists’ ultimate objective was to “dismantle the state,” Bennett put them on a par with Palestinian terrorists, offering them up as sacrifices to the Shin Bet and a middle-of-the-road Israeli public that values security over all other political currencies.

Where does Israeli terrorism come from?

But Bennett’s condemnations weren’t meant for Israeli ears alone. In keeping with his ambition, the education minister has been supplementing his cabinet role with frequent jaunts abroad and interviews in foreign media, where his Netanyahu-esque command of English and passionate-yet-affable demeanor serve well his earnest efforts to convince the world of the justice of Israel’s open-ended presence in the West Bank. And just as with Israeli audiences, the rationale he advocates is twofold, involving both biblical birthright, ratified by mcguffins such as the ancient coin he brandished during a 2013 interview with Christiane Amanpour, and security.

When it comes to security, his basic thesis, like that of much of the right in Israel, is that the impetus for Palestinian terrorism is not a territorial dispute or the indignities of the military regime in the territories, but rather, exclusively, Islamism and anti-Semitic hatred. Locally, the conclusion is obvious: Any territory that Israel were to pull out of, even under a peace agreement, would be swiftly overrun by Hamas or worse, and used as a launch pad for attacks that would threaten the very existence of the ever-tenuous Jewish state. Spokespeople of Bennett’s stripe have in recent years, buoyed by phenomena such as the Islamic State group and terror attacks in the West, extended that argument further: Israel, they maintain, is a Hadrian’s Wall of sorts, a bulwark of enlightenment holding off the barbarian hordes bent on overrunning Western civilization. For Israel to cede any territory, especially along its eastern frontier, would thus risk everything the West holds dear.

A masked Jewish settler swings a slingshot as he stands near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Yitzhar, on May 19, 2013 (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
A masked Jewish settler swings a slingshot as he stands near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Yitzhar, on May 19, 2013 (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

While for relative pragmatists such as Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, such claims serve to relieve international pressure and defer the disconcerting prospect of a withdrawal on their watch, for Bennett and the Zionist Orthodox they are a means by which to cement the status quo as a moral necessity. If it is to keep its reputation properly burnished, Israel, settlements included, must maintain its credentials as an upstanding Western society that celebrates life even as the region is consumed by “death cults” like the Islamic State.

The existence of settler terrorists every bit as cruel and ruthless as the men laying waste to Syria and Iraq — and, perhaps even more so, images of Jewish extremists celebrating the excruciating death of an innocent baby — opens the door to troubling questions for Bennett. For example: If Israel maintains that Palestinian terrorism, even in the midst of a decades-long territorial dispute, comes from Islam, where does Israeli terrorism come from? But more pointedly, a growing number of Western observers might wonder whether, as the civilian arm of a sometimes dehumanizing 50-year military regime, a growing portion of the settler movement is losing some of its own humanity. Such a conclusion would threaten to upend everything that Bennett and his community have toiled to build.

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