The great right hope: Michael Petrou on the rise of Naftali Bennett

How a hawkish politician is shaking up Israeli politics

Naftali Bennett, a hawkish Israeli politician whose lightning-fast rise on the right has shaken up Israeli politics in the run-up to the country’s Jan. 22 parliamentary election, campaigns with a hip and folksy charm that seems to soften the edges of his radical and illiberal ideas of how Israel should get along with Palestinians.

Even former prime minister Ariel Sharon—“the Bulldozer”—eventually came around to the idea of Palestinian statehood. Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he has, too, though he’s done little in practice to advance the proposition.

Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home political party, doesn’t bother with lip service. “There are some things that most of us know will never happen,” says one of his campaign ads. “The Sopranos will not return for another season. Rami Kleinstein [a bald Israeli singer] will not grow an Afro. And a peace agreement with the Palestinians will not happen.”

This political pitch is narrated over video of an artist illustrating Bennett’s arguments with whimsical and cartoonish pictures of maps and guns and oversized hair. It has the style of a smartphone commercial. And it suits Bennett, who is young, and who before entering politics made millions as a software tycoon.

Under Bennett’s “stability initiative,” Israel would formally annex about 60 per cent of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and offer citizenship or residency status to the approximately 48,000 Palestinians living there. Palestinians living in the remainder of the West Bank would be allowed some autonomy but not statehood.

“It’s essentially a repackaged apartheid,” says Brookings Institution fellow Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to the Palestinian leadership on negotiations with Israel. “Palestinians would still be stateless. It’s not practicable from the standpoint of modern human rights. You cannot subjugate a people forever and simply say you have permanent autonomy but you can’t be citizens. It’s unworkable.”

Current polls suggest the Jewish Home will win about 14 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset—possibly third place and strong enough to influence any governing coalition to which it belongs. Netanyahu will likely be re-elected as prime minister.

Chances of a deal between Israel and the Palestinians would be sharply reduced by the presence of Bennett’s party in a governing coalition, yet his stand on Palestinian statehood may not be the primary factor driving his popularity, says Dan Arbell, former deputy chief of mission at Israel’s embassy in Washington. Bennett’s youth and charisma have allowed him to connect with Israelis who aren’t otherwise part of the national religious movement backing the Jewish settlement of the West Bank.

But for religious nationalists, Bennett’s appeal is particularly strong—in part because he is so integrated in mainstream Israeli society. He’s a business success story, served in an elite military unit, and lives in Israel proper, rather than an isolated hilltop settlement in the West Bank.

“He’s very much at the centre of Israeli life,” says David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “A lot of religious Zionists resent that they’ve been shoehorned in Israeli life—at least in the media—as settlers. They may not agree with all of his views. Some do. Some don’t.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.