Bennett’s First Speech To The Knesset

Brent E. Sasley analyzes Naftali Bennett's speech and how it differed from Yair Lapid's.

Yesterday Naftali Bennett, leader of Jewish Home, gave his first speech to the Knesset. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were many similarities to Yair Lapid’s own first speech. But there were also some stark differences, and it is these differences—particularly on the nature of Israeli identity and on policy toward the Palestinians and two states—that came out most strongly in Bennett’s speech.

The two parties are in many ways alike. Both are new(ish) parties: Yesh Atid is brand new, literally created by Lapid as a vehicle for his entry into politics. Jewish Home is the latest reincarnation of the old Mafdal, the party of religious Zionism, but its message and efforts are very new. Both also claim to represent a new, more inclusive politics for (Jewish) Israelis.

In their speeches, both Lapid and Bennett mentioned the need to draft haredim into the military, as a way of sharing the burden of society. Bennett even called it a “mitzvah,” which translates literally into "commandment." For Orthodox Jews, then, Bennett tried to marry the duty imposed by God to the concept as it's generally taken in most of the rest of the Jewish world—rife with emotional resonance as a good deed, something one does to help heal the world—and to the national-religious conceptualization of Israel as the beginning of national redemption, one inspired by God but driven by human hands.

But complementing the drafting of haredim was Bennett’s emphasis on rejuvenating Israeli identity, as Jewish identity. “Let’s bring back the Jewish-Zionist education to all of Israel’s children,” he urged, referencing both leaders celebrated in the development of Judaism (Moses, David) but also specifically Jewish individuals who contributed to a more exclusive Jewish identity and pride—like Yoni Netanyahu (the prime minister’s brother, killed during the raid on Entebbe), Hannah Senesh (a hero of the Shoah), and Judah Maccabee (who fought to restore Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel).

Lapid didn’t explicitly discuss how to bring all segments of Israeli society together, but he de-emphasized the specifically Jewish nature of Israeli identity. There is room, one gets from his speech, for different groups in Israel. Yet Bennett’s speech gave the opposite impression: an exclusivist national-Jewish identity that leaves no room not only for Palestinians and other non-Jews, but also Jews who aren’t interested in the Jewish values as conceptualized by Jewish Home.

On the peace process, Lapid has long insisted on negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, and that two states is the only solution. It’s true he’s not the absolute dove that many hoped he might be—he recently told U.S. Jewish leaders visiting Israel that Ehud Olmert had gone too far in his negotiations. But he leaves lots of space open for movement on talks.

Bennett, in contrast, has long been absolutely clear that he opposes any notion of Palestinian self-determination, and that the West Bank belongs exclusively to Jewish Israel. He reiterated this in his Knesset speech, proclaiming, “There is no room in our small but wonderful God-given tract for another state. It won’t happen. Friends, before every discussion on the territories, we need to declare: ‘The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.’ Only then can we start the debate.”

Both parties are considered to be the key to the next coalition government, either separately or together. Yet despite some shared priorities (the haredi draft and even economic reforms), they stand at opposite ends of the spectrum on what it means to be Israel. This presents a stark choice to the country, and indeed to Jews and others who see their own identities bound up with Israel.

Lapid is no leftist hero. But in his ideas about the contours of Israeli identity and the peace process, he sees a more inclusive, open, tolerant process as necessary. For his part, Bennett sees both in very narrow terms centered on a core national, religious, and Jewish identity.

Those involved with Israel need to think hard about which vision of the country’s future they wish to see come to pass.