Uncompromising, Bennett transforms party and Israel’s right

Leader wants to shed Jewish Home’s sectoral identity and change it into a vehicle to reverse recent concessions on the Palestinian question — and he may be succeeding

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Then-economy minister Naftali Bennett speaks at an economic conference, on September 2, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)
Then-economy minister Naftali Bennett speaks at an economic conference, on September 2, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

‘Something happened this evening,” a member of Knesset said ominously earlier this month. “We awaken tomorrow to a new political reality. Today the opening shot was fired in a war over the identity of the Jewish Home party. Are we to be a secular party, Likud B, that strips itself of its values, or a national-religious party founded on the values of religious Zionism?”

The MK was Yoni Chetboun, who has distinguished himself in recent weeks as the fiercest opponent to the reforms being enacted in Israel’s far-right party by party leader and economy minister Naftali Bennett.

Over the past month, Bennett has led a quiet but dramatic earthquake on the right. On September 10, at a Jewish Home gathering at the Tel Aviv University campus, he won a vote in his party’s central committee that enacted a new constitution in his branch of the Jewish Home list. (The Knesset faction known as Jewish Home is actually composed of two distinct political entities, Bennett’s Jewish Home-National Religious Party and Housing Minister Uri Ariel’s National Union list.)

Bennett has emerged as a mixed blessing for the religious-Zionist movement. The blessing is easy to see. His party held three seats before he emerged as its leader. Led by Bennett, and allied with National Union, the party surged to 12 seats in the new Knesset and found itself for the first time in years at the helm of some of the most powerful agencies of government — including the Housing Ministry, a critical institution for the ideological champions of the settlement movement. It now polls higher still, at 15 seats in the latest Globes poll this week, and as high as 19 in other polls over the past two months — placing it on equal footing with the current Knesset showing of Likud and Yesh Atid.

But the new constitution also highlights the aspects of Bennett’s leadership that have discomfited some of the religious right’s ideologues, including a few influential rabbis.

Jewish Home MK Yoni Chetboun (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Jewish Home MK Yoni Chetboun (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The new constitution, which passed with a huge majority, significantly strengthens the party’s leader by giving him the power to appoint two MKs in every decile of the Knesset list, to personally choose the party’s ministers subject only to a Central Committee approval vote, and to decide alone on the party joining or leaving the government.

It also sheds many of the party’s distinctive sectoral markers. The party no longer defines itself through its explicit support for the traditional institutions of religious Zionism — including the state-religious school system, Bnei Akiva youth movement and Hapoel Mizrahi labor federation.

For the first time, the party’s constitution allows the election of Jewish Home leaders who are not explicitly devoted to the Orthodox religious observance that is part of the party’s defining ideology.

Taken together, these new stipulations reorient the traditionally religious party dramatically, from a home for a narrow ideological subset of Israeli society to one that openly courts larger audiences in the Israeli mainstream.

“Naftali Bennett is made of the stuff from which prime ministers are forged,” MK Ayelet Shaked declared last week.

And, indeed, this ambition to ride his rising poll numbers all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office has made Bennett’s subordinates lighter on the elections trigger this month. In just the past three days, two MKs, Shuli Mualem and Shaked, have threatened to pull out of the government — the former to chastise Finance Minister Yair Lapid for delivering a statement to the media on the Sabbath, and the latter to pressure the government to resist this week’s High Court ruling that overturned the government’s policy on African migrants and refugees.

But for Bennett, the changes he is leading in his party are about much more than his own career. They are, in fact, a step toward the reconstruction of what he sees as an emasculated and dismantled Israeli right.

‘Its former glory’

One of the recurring campaign slogans of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, drawn from the religious and social ideology of its late spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is “lehakhzir atara leyoshna,” which translates roughly to “restoring to its former glory.”

“This is about lehakhzir atara leyoshna, as they say in Shas,” a party official said Tuesday. “We’re the only party on the right where voters don’t have to guess about our opinions or ideology.”

This sentiment of “restoration” may seem strange. The right is politically indomitable. Right-wing leaders have won, and look set to continue to win, every election in recent years or the foreseeable future.

Yet even as the right wins elections, it does so by fulfilling the demands of a relatively new but vast Israeli center. In the early 1990s, the Likud defined itself through its opposition to Palestinian independence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 2005, a Likud leader led the withdrawal from Gaza and a formal renunciation of Israeli control over the territory, and took care to pull down four small Jewish settlements in the West Bank as a message that the rest of the Palestinians would be independent before long.

Then, in 2009, Likud’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself delivered the so-called Bar Ilan speech, declaring for the first time from the mouth of a Likud leader that he accepted the principle of an independent Palestinian state.

For Bennett, who was once close to the Likud, and, indeed, was an aide to Netanyahu himself, this drift “leftward” on the Palestinian question belies the notion that the right is winning the long political game.

Bennett has framed this ideological loss of focus as cowardice.

“In the book of Deuteronomy, we are witness to the stages that preceded the entry [of the Israelites] to the land of Israel,” Bennett said in a homily that began his speech to the Jewish Home Central Committee after the constitution vote earlier this month.

Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (C) at a press conference promoting new housing units to be built in the Jewish settlement of Tel Tzion, near Jerusalem, on August 13, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)
Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (C) at a press conference promoting new housing units to be built in the Jewish settlement of Tel Tzion, near Jerusalem, on August 13, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)

“The most foundational and difficult event in the desert was the sin of the spies [in which Israelite spies lost faith in the divine promise and warned the people against entering the land]. We usually explain that the nation of Israel was scared to lose the war to conquer the land of Israel,” Bennett said. “But the truth is, the people of Israel were scared to win. Because suddenly, [upon entering the land,] the Torah in the desert has to be implemented in the day-to-day. Suddenly you have to manage agriculture, an economy, education, defense. How hard it is to live in the real world! In truth, the sin of the spies was the thought that the Torah remains something abstract in the desert, [something] we don’t want to implement it.”

The Jewish Home party “is proving that the people of Israel can live in the land of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel!” he declared. “We are not afraid. We are not afraid to lead. We are not afraid to speak our values in every place, from CNN to a gathering in a home in Netivot. The truth is the truth is the truth.”

“We are not afraid,” in other words, to hold the line against Palestinian statehood.

Bennett, a practicing Orthodox Jew, is actually an outsider to the world of religious Zionism. He is a successful high-tech entrepreneur from Ra’anana, not a leader of West Bank settlers or a student of far-right rabbis.

But for Bennett, Jewish Home is a vehicle for achieving something far more significant, in his view, than — as the party constitution stipulated until this month — funneling funds to religious-Zionist youth groups or schools. The right has lost its way, he believes, and Bennett hopes to rebuild it on the nucleus of religious Zionism, the ideological movement that, though small in demographic terms, has not surrendered to the pressures of international demands, left-wing guilt-mongering or the growing centrist impulse for separation from the Palestinians.

And he knows, Bennett said bluntly, that he faces stiff opposition.

“Oh, how many people hope we will lose!” he told Jewish Home’s leaders and activists. “Why do I wake up in the morning and see the main headline in two different newspapers [dealing with] the Jewish Home central committee? Why does it bother them? Because they see that the people of Israel are joining us. The development towns, secular Jews, religious Jews, ultra-orthodox Jews, the Druze!”

In pushing for this new role for his party, Bennett brings a promise, but also in some ways a loss, for religious Zionism.

“Money, seats and suits don’t blind me,” Chetboun declared at the constitution vote. “False promises of electoral fantasies won’t cloud my vision, and I intend on fulfilling what we promised to our voters. I will lead a religious-Zionist camp inside Jewish Home, and with God’s help we will succeed.”

Chetboun is not a popular MK in the party. His protests against Bennett were booed vigorously by the party faithful at the Central Committee meeting.

But Chetboun is giving voice to a skeptical, sectoral strain in the party that is uncertain about Bennett’s plans. While all Jewish Home activists want to see the country led according to their vision, some see the price — the party’s reorientation away from their sector’s institutions — as too high, and the goal — a Jewish Home prime minister — as too improbable to justify it.

Bennett has the upper hand in this battle, as evidenced by his victory in the Central Committee this month. The party reads the polls, sees the opportunity and yearns to take back the political initiative. But as it retools itself to the Israeli mainstream, Jewish Home, heir to a century of religious-Zionist ideology and politics, may never be the same.

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