The Man Who Brought Down Bibi

Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself besieged by a resurgent Israeli left and an old ally-turned-rival on the right.


JERUSALEM — In the heart of Ajami, the last remnant of what was once the thriving Palestinian coastal city of Jaffa, dozens of religious students at the Song of Moses Yeshiva bicker over their Talmudic interpretations. "We are here to restore Judaism on the coast and turn Jaffa into a spiritual home in the heart of Tel Aviv," says its administrator, Hanan Hochster.

Hochster is part of the vanguard of Israel’s national-religious settlers who, over the past half-decade, have swept down from their hilltop garrisons in the occupied West Bank. Their mission is nothing less than to conquer metropolitan Israel. "After the disengagement from Gush Katif [the Jewish settlements in Gaza], we realized that we lost the land because we lost the people, and had to win them back," he says. As part their studies, which combines Talmud with military training, each student is obliged to spend five hours a week on community service.

Their political arm is Jewish Home, a right-wing party whose rise inside mainstream Israel has been no less startling. Like the Jaffa Yeshiva, which has almost doubled its student body in a year, Jewish Home quadrupled its seats to 12 in Israel’s Jan. 22 election, turning it from the Knesset’s smallest party into the fourth largest. Its leader, millionaire Israeli businessman Naftali Bennett, has become the rising star on Israel’s political scene over the course of the campaign.

The rise of Yair Lapid, a media personality-turned-politician, has become the story of this Israeli election — but it is Bennett who was responsible for the poor showing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. While other parties fought over the scraps from Kadima, a centrist party that imploded, Bennett targeted Netanyahu’s voter base, depleting his party’s coalition from 42 seats to 31. As a result, Netanyahu faces a series of tough decisions as he mulls how to assemble a governing coalition that will return him to the premiership.

To Israel’s ruling elites, Jewish Home seeks to supplant not only the remains of historic Palestine but the secular Israel they built on its ruins. Secular Jews have railed at the descent of hilltop zealots and ultra-orthodox Jewish rabbis, who consider their military zeal and nationalism a perversion of biblical tradition. Fearful that Bennett would strip him of voters on the religious right, Netanyahu warned settlers against making "a historic, fatal mistake … of splitting their votes, weakening the Likud, and bringing a left-wing government to power."

But amid rising social discontent, Israelis are increasingly looking for alternatives — and both Bennett and Lapid fit the bill. As elsewhere in the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of young Israelis took to the streets in protest at their rulers in 2011, while religious nationalists capitalized at the ballot box on their discontent with crony capitalism and security regimes that ride roughshod over the aspirations of their people. Bennett likens religious Zionism’s rise to the Arab Awakening, which has seen Islamists topple old elites across the region. It is, he says, "a Jewish Spring."

In part, Bennett is the beneficiary of a protest vote against the two older right-wing parties: Likud and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Once the party of Israel’s underdogs, Likud under Netanyahu seemed increasingly the voice of the establishment and its business interests. Critics accused its leaders of being lackluster and uninspiring — concerned with their own survival and devoid of diplomatic initiatives or fresh ideas on getting Israel’s ultra-orthodox and Arab population off welfare and into work. Lieberman’s image, meanwhile, was tarnished by an indictment on corruption charges. His predominantly Russian followers have also abandoned him in droves, upset that the Moldavian immigrant has forsaken their interests for mainstream political success.

The Netanyahu-Lieberman alliance is no less controversial within Likud. A powerful national-religious caucus inside the party has berated Netanyahu for embracing Lieberman, an ardent secularist who wants to ease rabbinic restrictions on Jews marrying non-Jews. An ultra-orthodox election broadcast parodied the party in a sketch that imagines the party sending fax machines to weddings so that a non-Jewish partner can receive instant conversion certificates.

Many are equally disenchanted with leaders who have parroted hawkish rhetoric but left the status quo with the Palestinian Authority largely unchanged. "The Likud believes that all of the land of Israel belongs to the People of Israel. That’s our manifesto," says a national-religious settler in the senior ranks of Likud’s Central Committee. "Netanyahu has not come up strong enough to instill confidence that he will follow a right-wing platform." In a silent protest, many party members stayed at home rather than canvass, contributing to the party’s decline.

Netanyahu tried to recover lost ground, vowing that his government would never remove settlements and campaigning at the Wailing Wall, a Jewish holy site in Jerusalem’s occupied Old City. Likud campaign posters in religious suburbs of Jerusalem show a Netanyahu wearing a black skullcap and lighting ceremonial candles — an about-face for a prime minister who works on the Sabbath, in contravention of Jewish tradition, and who once married a non-Jew.

But the charm offensive failed to convince. Where Netanyahu donned his skullcap on Jewish ceremonies when the cameras were watching, Bennett wore it permanently — and moved in to exploit the mounting skepticism in the religious Zionist camp.

In some ways, Bennett’s Judaism looks as opportunistic as Netanyahu’s. His national-religious persona has waxed and waned throughout his career: He was born in the port city of Haifa to California migrants who were secular Zionists, lives in a coastal suburb of Tel Aviv rather than a settlement, and for much of his career did not wear a knitted skull-cap, the headdress of national-religious Jews.

Bennett’s rise in 2010 to head the Yesha Council, the body representing over 300,000 settlers in the occupied West Bank, may have been similarly motivated as much by personal interest as ideology. Hired by Netanyahu as his chief of staff to hound then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over his shoddy management of Israel’s 2006 Lebanon War, he quickly turned on his master. After an acrimonious 18 months, which ended in his dismissal, he took revenge by turning Yesha into a tool to puncture Netanyahu’s right-wing support. Using the emails and telephone numbers he procured as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and campaign manager in Likud’s 2007 primaries, he mounted a sustained attack on Netanyahu’s agreement, under U.S. pressure, to a 10-month freeze in settlement expansion.

Bennett’s next move was to enlist Netanyahu’s disillusioned followers as members in Jewish Home, which he took over earlier this year. While in Yesha, he further helped 15,000 predominantly national-religious sign up as Likud members to propel hawks to the party’s most senior positions, and undermine Netanyahu from within.

Other Israeli politicians similarly tried to capitalize on Netanyahu’s tensions with the religious right. Shelly Yachimovich, leader of Labor, which is set to be the main opposition party, risked bitter criticism from within by downplaying Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and refusing to condemn settlers. Though her party spawned the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, her political program did not even include a reference to the word "peace." Lapid, a secular television presenter who used to host Israel’s prime-time news program on Friday nights, when religious Jews turn off their televisions, recruited a settler rabbi as the deputy of his party, which won 19 seats.

But neither had Bennett’s knack for draining Likud of its votes. He straddles the two Israels — the coast of Israel proper and the peripheral highlands of military occupation, the secular and the religious. He is both a resident of the Tel Aviv bubble and a religious settler leader. He founded a hi-tech start-up in the United States that made him millions, realizing the dream of secular Tel Aviv yuppies. His military accolades as a soldier in an elite unit operating behind enemy lines in Lebanon, which he repeatedly parades, have won him the support of conscripts.

Above all, he represents the majority of Israelis born after 1967, who have only known Israel as a military occupier of Palestinian territories and feel fairly comfortable about it.

To placate voters nervous of tilting rightwards, Bennett has sought to shed some of the millennial traits religious Zionism acquired after Israel’s 1967 conquests of biblical lands: He emphasized his movement’s pre-1967 commitment to social causes, and said Jewish values outweighed devotion to land.. He denounces Netanyahu for creating a state grounded in fear of annihilation, rather than one rooted in a positive spiritual tradition, and calls for cuts in Israel’s bloated military budget.

Bennett certainly downplayed the communalism common amongst other national-religious firebrands. While Moshe Feiglin, a prominent religious settler on Netanyahu’s electoral list, proposes paying Arabs to get out, Bennett said he would refuse orders to evict Arabs as well as Jews. While he opposes partition, he has entertained other ways of ending Israel’s 45-year military occupation: As Yesha leader he considered fully annexing the West Bank, granting its population full Israeli citizenship, and creating a single binational state. For now, he calls for keeping the Palestinian Authority — but has proposed restoring the status quo of the pre-Oslo years, ending Israel’s role as overseer of Palestinian bantustans.

"Right of movement is not good enough inside Judea and Samaria [the right-wing term for the West Bank]," he said in an interview last year. "If I was prime minister I would tear down the fence [the separation barrier] tomorrow. I’d remove the roadblocks. Arabs from Nablus should be able to go beach in Tel Aviv, as they did in the 1980s."

There is, of course, a darker side to Bennett’s movement. Jewish Home is a composite that also includes Tekuma, a movement of national-religious settlers governed by a triumvirate of rabbis with more extremist tendencies. Bennett’s deputy is Uri Ariel, a parliamentarian who regularly parades on the forecourt around the Muslim shrine of Dome of the Rock, where the Jewish temple once stood, to promote Jewish rights to worship there.

Bennett’s list of candidates also includes Jeremy Gimpel, who has posited "blowing up" the Dome of the Rock and rebuilding a Jewish temple on its ruins, and a Hebron rabbi, who advised officials on how to settle national-religious Jews in Upper Nazareth and keep Israel’s Arab citizens out. Bennett has also authored his own plan proposing to annex Area C, the rural 60 percent of the West Bank, where Jewish settlers outnumber Palestinians three to one, and retain military control over the rest. While party faithful suggest it could be the first stage for a broader rollout of citizenship to more Palestinians, in its current guise it amounts to an unabashed Israeli land grab.

Moreover, for all its pretensions to coexistence, Jewish Home has shown little regard for the marginalization of Israel’s Arabs, who make up one in five of its citizens. Like other parties in Netanyahu’s coalition, it declined to sign a charter committing an incoming government to end the yawning socioeconomic gap between Israeli Jews, 15 percent of whom live in poverty, and Arab Israelis, 55 percent of whom are poor. This disregard for Israel’s Arab citizens is also evident at the grassroots level: Though the Jaffa Yeshiva is in Arab neighborhood, its student volunteers help only Jews.

Bennett insists that he, not Tekuma’s rabbis, will dictate policy. But his bad blood with Netanyahu could mean that he will remain excluded from government for the time being. The two leaders’ antagonism may just decide what sort of coalition Netanyahu forms: The prime minister is unlikely to readily forgive the former chief of staff who betrayed him, nor the settlers who filled the ranks of Likud and then voted for a hard-right party.

Moreover, a shift to the center could help Netanyahu restore old-time loyalists unpopular with the hard right, and ease pressure from the international community to moderate his positions. While few expect the new Israeli government to make the Israeli-Palestinian peace process a priority, Netanyahu could yet form a majority government comprised of Lapid’s party and the ultra-orthodox party, Shas, leaving Bennett and his fickle following of settlers out in the cold. Ironically, by targeting Netanyahu’s base, Bennett may have deprived the settlers and religious Zionists of power — at least until the next election.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola