Why I Like Naftali Bennett

Shaul Magid explains why, if the Israeli electorate empowers the far-right Naftali Bennett, it may actually help the left.

I like Naftali Bennett, the head of the far-right Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudi) party and new face on the Israeli political scene. Why? Mostly because he is honest, straightforward, and finally says openly what many in the center-right ruling government, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, believe but simply will not say. No more “painful compromises,” no more “there is no partner for peace,” no more “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East,” no more flaccid proclamations of a “two-state solution.” There will be no “painful compromises.” There will be no compromises at all. And it is not because of the Palestinians. If Mahatma Gandhi returned and was democratically elected as president of the Palestinian Authority, it would not matter. If the Palestinian government became like Canada it would not matter. There will be no Palestinian state. There is no peace process, and the fault does not lie solely with Palestinian behavior. Why? Because, as Mr. Bennett says openly, “The land is ours.” Period. There is no fervent messianism like that of the settler rabbis, no secular militarism like that of Zeev Jabotinsky. The land belongs to the Jews. Take a deep breath and repeat.

What does Mr. Bennett envision in his calm and confident voice? A one-state solution where Palestinians will have limited regional autonomy in a Jewish state. They will not become citizens. They will not vote in national elections. They will be constantly monitored by the Israeli security forces. In other words, Bantusians. In other words, Apartheid. These words do not scare Bennett. If that is what others want to call it, so be it. To him, it is simply The Jewish State.

What about democracy? It will be a new kind of democracy. Not anything the U.S. and the West is familiar with today. Here Moshe Feiglin, a Likud member who will surely become a Knesset member in a few weeks, said it quite clearly: democracy will serve the interests of the state, not the other way around.

So why do I like Naftali Bennett? Because the voice of the right has finally taken off its mask and now we can see it for what it is. In many ways, a sanitized Kahanism. But Meir Kahane was such an unsavory figure: angry, diabolical, manipulative, a perfect villain. He spewed racism and threatened everyone who didn’t agree with him. At his worst he was a modern demagogue. At his best he was a kind of clown with a sharp wit and talented rhetorical skills. In many ways, he was his own worst enemy. But he was also very successful, so much so that now a party that embodies much of his vision will be a serious force in the Israeli government. Kahane has not gone away; he has gone to the mikveh and morphed into a group of bourgeois forty-somethings who enjoy a good Merlot in a posh wine bar in North Tel Aviv.

Bennett is genteel, an elite solider, someone who is as comfortable with secularism as he is with his religiosity. He is not scary to secularists in Israel. He is, in many ways, one of them. He lives in a thriving Tel Aviv suburb and not in a settlement. But if you read his platform carefully it is not very different from Kahane’s. And his secular Tel Avivi compatriot Ayelet Shaked destroys all stereotypes of an Israeli “radical.”

So why do I like Naftali Bennett? Because if he and his party are as successful as polls predict, it will place a choice before the American Jewish community and the United States government. No more evasive language. The Jewish/Israel lobby will have to throw away its handbook. Its slogans will become obsolete. Bennett’s Israel does not want peace. It is not waiting for the other side to denounce violence. Two states? That was something from the last century. One state? Yes, but not one many American Jews will feel proud of. And not one the U.S. government will easily support.

As long as the center-right hobbles along with its obfuscating rhetoric and stalling tactics, nothing will be accomplished. And even if the center-left was elected, it has no real ideological commitment to ending the occupation. It is just more compassionate to the plight of the Palestinians it is persecuting. The true left cannot easily convince its listeners that the man with a mask is something other than what he claims to be. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked do not wear masks. They state confidently what they believe. If the Israeli electorate empowers them, at least we know what we are dealing with. It is the only chance the left has. The only chance for an end to the conflict is to elect someone who doesn’t even believe there is a conflict.