Elections in Israel

12.26.12

Why Is Bennett So Popular With Young Israelis?

Last week, a poll done by Israel’s Channel 2 reported that among Israelis under the age of 30, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party is the most popular. Young hardliners who voted for Yisrael Beiteinu need a new ultra-nationalist to get behind—and they have found him: the earnest, well-organized Naftali Bennett.

It's no wonder the up-and-coming right is so excited. It is becoming increasingly likely that Bennett will join a Biberman coalition in the 19th Knesset and his political relevance is increasing by the day. Arutz Sheva recently reported that Netanyahu’s plans to build in E1 had more to do with smiting Bennett than punishing Abbas. And since a difficult interview on Israel’s Channel 2 [Hebrew] last Thursday, in which Bennett announced that if he received “an order to evict a Jew from his house and expel him, personally, my conscience wouldn’t allow it,” his poll numbers have only risen. Given his popularity, especially among young voters, Bennett's clout shouldn't be underestimated—particularly considering his plans to “tear Gaza in two,” sanction Iran into paralysis, and prevent a Palestinian state at all costs.

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I went to Tel Aviv last Thursday night to hear Bennett speak with young “internationals.” Bennett didn’t say anything new. His positions maintain the paper-thin line of today’s religious Zionism: no to gay marriage, but “live and let live” in the army; mandatory service for most ultra-Orthodox, but Torah study is what keeps us alive. He was vague about his relationship with Bibi, though it’s clear he’s itching to be Housing Minister (he called the housing crisis almost “un-Zionist”—in his mind there could be no worse thing). The list goes on.

The tropes I heard from Bennett’s young supporters were straightforward; they were avoiding his religious views and were inflected with hope. Of course they were enthused by Bennett's maximalist nationalism (see his Plan to annex area C), his capitalist impulses (he made his money in hi-tech), his view of the Palestinians (“they want to wipe us out, period”) and his rebranding of the old sectarian Mafdal into the new Jewish Home for all.

But beyond the basic right-wing stances, the young right prefers Bennett to Leiberyahu for two reasons: First, he is refreshingly not cynical (in contrast to, say, Bibi, Shelly, Livni, etc.) and second, he truly believes he can change Israel for the better (a conviction Meretz, for example, sorely lacks). There is a sense that Bennett is the real deal: he is the authentic Zionist, the chaste politician, the man with a plan.

On top of this attractive sincerity, Bennett had help. He’s trendy on the right in part because he had a good campaign manager—Moshe Klughoft, CEO and owner of EDK Consulting. Klughoft is the man who, among others things, ran Im Tirzu’s scurrilous campaign against the New Israel Fund in 2009. He knows how it’s done.

After the talk, I spoke with a young Israeli Bennett supporter named Netanel Bollag. After high school, Netanel went to a Hesder yeshiva called Otniel deep in the West Bank, a program that included a year and a half as a soldier in the Golani brigade (coincidentally the same brigade as Bennett’s running mate and key selling point, the secular Ayelet Shaked). We started talking about Bennett’s ideas to annex Area C. I made the point that annexing settlements means an end to the dream of a contiguous Palestinian state, a dream I think is both good for Israel and might still be possible as it holds a consensus position in the Israeli public as well as the international community. But Netanel wasn’t having any of it: he argued that the two-state solution has never been a matter of consensus in Israel, and, moreover, it is a terrible idea.

Netanel’s argument against a Palestinian state centered not on Whole Land of Israel as significant biblically, historically and religiously—it focused on realpolitik, security, and Israel’s capacity for demographic shifts. It was convincing and coherent, like Dani Dayan’s NYT op-ed earlier this year, and it sounded feasible, like it could have come straight out of a MyIsrael playbook. His comments reflected Bennett's shift from the old national religious discourse of Messianism to one of “security,” “human rights” for settlers, a conversation where the secular right can also feel welcome. And it was deeply earnest.

Yes, Bennett is a weird political animal. He has thrust two right-wing eggs—the national religious and secular ultranationalist—into the same basket. But he has no intention of scrambling the right wing’s politics; he’s starting something new. It’s fresh, well-spiced, and sunny side up.