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Rising star pushes Israeli politics right
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Rising star pushes Israeli politics right

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Naftali Bennett, the leader of the small Habayit Hayehudi Party in Israel, has made the forthcoming Israeli elections even more exciting, more troubling, and even more polarizing than they already appeared. Both his extreme nationalist positions as well as his zealous religious Zionist views make him the bane and hero of many potential voters.

Bennett is a self-made Israeli success story. He is a sabra, whose parents made aliya after the Six-Day War. Although trained as a lawyer, he became a millionaire in the hi-tech field in the United States and then returned to Israel. He has been immersed in right-wing politics for over a decade. Bennett served as Bibi Netanyahu’s chief of staff for two years and ran his Likud primary campaign. Since 2008 he has been actively involved with the settler movement and was recently elected as the head of Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home).

His party is composed of right-wing settler activists who find Likud too moderate. It is also the home for many of the right-wing followers of the religious Zionist leadership which in recent years have seen their old National Religious Party disintegrate. In the most recent polls, Habayit Hayehudi will be picking up 12 Knesset seats, third behind the Labor Party (19) and the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu coalition led by Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman (35). Lagging behind are an array of Sephardi, Israeli Arab, and left-wing parties that are barely hanging on. With numbers like that, Netanyahu’s coalition might need, or want, to include Bennett’s Party in a governing coalition; especially if it enabled them to form a governing coalition without the haredi parties.

The most dramatic wrinkle in Bennett’s campaign has been his statements in support of those who would disobey IDF orders if they would include the dismantling of settlements, or relinquishing any territory Israel currently occupies.

The legal issue is rather basic. In a democracy the rule of law must be paramount. The struggle of political leaders is always to act and govern within the law. Orders of the military, presumably sanctioned by the legally elected authorities, cannot be disobeyed or flouted. Any leaders who do so are in violation of the law. Were Bennett, serving as military reserve officer, to defy a military order, he would be fundamentally challenging the essence of the democratic foundation of the state. Were a government minister to recommend disobeying orders, he would be flouting the democratic system upon which the State of Israel is based.

A number of rabbis in the nationalist camp have in the past endorsed disobeying military orders to dismantle Jewish settlements and/or returning land to the Palestinians. This hard-line position, based on their understanding of rabbinic texts, buttresses Bennett and his followers even more. Some of the more right-wing Sephardi pols may join his bloc as well as the secular but no less nationalist followers of Yisrael Beiteinu. This potential alliance could make it even harder for Netanyahu to avoid disappearing over the political edge. (Lieberman’s recent resignation as foreign minister, in the face of corruption charters, further muddies the waters. What else might the Attorney General be holding over Lieberman that saw him walk meekly off the political stage? Will the removal of his name from the party ticket disrupt the party’s appeal among his faithful?)

The only good news about the political ugliness which has emerged in Israel during the campaign season is that it will be all over very soon. Unlike the interminable U.S. election cycle, Israeli voters will be going to the polls on Jan. 22.

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