A smile on his lips, his voice direct and authoritative, his agenda rightwing but broadbased, Naftali Bennett is quickly turning into the newest darling of Israel’s national religious bloc.
Just under a month before snap elections on January 22, Bennett’s Jewish Home party is snatching seats away from the joint list of premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud faction and the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Polls project that the party, which now holds just three seats in the 120-seat Knesset, will win between 11 and 13 in the upcoming elections, many of them snapped from the Likud-Beitenu list, which still stands to win the most seats of any party, around 35.
The son of American immigrants to Israel, 40-year-old Bennett has succeeded in reviving the fortunes of a party that had its heyday in the 1960s, but has been a member of government coalitions from 1948 to 1992.
Traditionally representing Israel’s national religious movement, Jewish Home began to shift to the right in the 1970s, before losing much of its electorate and seeing its standing in the Knesset reduced from a high of 12 seats to three in 2009, its worst-ever performance.
Bennett, a former high-tech entrepreneur who sold his start-up in 2005 for $145 million (110 million euros), tends to talk up the fact that he also served in a military commando unit — a profile that has proved attractive to younger voters.
He has also sought to enlarge his party’s traditional base by building a broad electoral list, including rabbi Eliyahu Bendahan, of Sephardic origin, a rarity in a party traditionally considered to lean towards Jews of Ashkenazi, or European origin.
The list also includes Ayelet Shaked, a young secular female politician who worked in Netanyahu’s cabinet and hails from Tel Aviv — considered the cosmopolitan heart of Israel’s non-religious youth.
At the same time, Bennett, who once headed the Yesha settler council, has also sought to reassure the most rightwing of his constituents by running on a joint list with the National Union party, which is traditionally more rightwing than Jewish Home.
Before quitting Netanyahu’s Likud in May 2012, Bennett created the “Israelis” movement, which promoted dialogue between religious and secular Israelis as well as his so-called “Bennett Plan” for peace with the Palestinians.
The plan called for Israel to annex all parts of the West Bank designated as “Area C” under the Oslo Accords — approximately 60 percent of the territory — which is already under full Israeli administrative and security control.
The Palestinian Authority would in return receive greater control over Areas A and B, which includes major Palestinian cities.
Palestinians reject such a plan, saying it leavees most of the West Bank in Israeli hands and make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible.
Bennett resolutely opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state and that puts him to the right of Likud, which officially endorses the two-state solution, a position he is comfortable with.
“I’m in favour of Netanyahu being prime minister but we will be strong in preventing the creation of a coalition of leftwing parties,” Bennett told AFP.
A savvy communicator who uses social networks to connect with voters in Hebrew, English and French, Bennett has nonetheless already found himself caught up in one major political flap — over comments suggesting he would refuse orders to evacuate Jewish settlement if he were serving in the military.
He backtracked on them after an uproar, with Netanyahu and others suggesting he was promoting insubordination, but his remarks seemed to resonate with parts of the electorate, with a poll taken after the incident showing him gaining seats.
Haaretz’s Yossi Verter, analysing the poll, said Netanyahu had erred in attacking Bennett so publicly over the comments, turning his challenger “into the darling of the right, a national figure.”