fb-pixel Skip to main content

Charismatic new leader winning Israelis

Naftali Bennett, the son of American immigrants, leads the revitalized Jewish Home Party in Israel.JIM HOLLANDER /epa

RAANANA, Israel — The charismatic new leader of Israel's Jewish religious right is siphoning a large chunk of votes from the prime minister's party, according to polls leading up to the Jan. 22 elections, and if the trend continues, the high-tech millionaire and former commando might emerge as a powerful voice opposing Palestinian statehood.

Though Naftali Bennett, the 40-year-old son of US immigrants, is a classic religious hardliner, comfortable in the settlements he champions, he has been able to draw on his military and entrepreneurial background to widen his appeal into secular circles as well. His sprawling home in Raanana, an upscale Tel Aviv suburb, is far from the barren hilltops of West Bank settlers who are the backbone of his support.


Polls show his Jewish Home party becoming the third-largest in the upcoming Parliament, behind Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc and centrist Labor. As Bennett's party gains ground, it has steadily eaten into Netanyahu's still-formidable lead. Several of Netanyahu's recent moves, including a surge in settlement construction announcements, have been attributed to the ''Bennett factor.''

Philosophically, Bennett and his party would fit easily into a hardline government of the type Netanyahu is expected to form, though the political newcomer and the Israeli leader — his former boss and political mentor — have a history of bad blood that deepened during this past week.

Bennett's campaign has enlivened an otherwise drab election season. The Jewish Home party now has five seats in the 120-member Parliament, but polls since Bennett took over the leadership show it could win up to 15 in the election. He says his goal is to broaden the base of his party by appealing to centrist, secular voters alongside the traditional backing of settlers and their supporters.

His political message, however, does not sound centrist.

''My positions are very clear: I never hide the fact that I categorically oppose a Palestinian state inside our country,'' Bennett said in a phone interview. In the terminology of religiously devout hardliners, ''our country'' means not only Israel, but also the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which the Palestinians hope to incorporate into a future state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.


Bennett takes pride in his straight-talking campaign and accuses other politicians — including Netanyahu — of being ambiguous.

Bennett, a father of four, also has an image perhaps more palatable to the Tel Aviv hipsters he hopes to target: success on their secular terms.

After serving in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, Bennett made a fortune in the largely secular high-tech world. In 1999, he cofounded Cyota, an antifraud software company he sold in 2005 to US-based RSA Security for $145 million. He says he is living in Raanana, rather than a settlement, for unspecified ''personal reasons.''

''There is a huge gap between his appearance and his content,'' said Amnon Abramovitch, a veteran political commentator for Israel's Channel 2 TV. ''He looks very modern, he speaks very liberally, but his messages are very extreme.''

Political columnist Sima Kadmon said Bennett's clean family image and modern lifestyle blind some of his supporters to his hardline positions.

''Quite a few secular young men and women have fallen into that honey trap,'' she wrote.

Bennett rejects the barbs, saying his positions are clear and distinctly hawkish: He opposes a Palestinian state, the uprooting of settlements, and territorial concessions that most of the world deem necessary for peace. He has presented a plan that calls for the annexation of much of the West Bank territory Israel currently controls.


''I say the same thing everywhere I go,'' he insists. ''The mistake is to categorize me as extreme.''

Bennett turned to politics after the sale of Cyota and served as Netanyahu's chief of staff for two years. They parted ways after a mysterious falling out he will not discuss but that Israeli media have linked to Netanyahu's wife, Sara, who wields influence in the prime minister's inner circle.

He and Netanyahu clashed again when Bennett, then leader of the mainstream settler group, fiercely opposed Netanyahu's decision in late 2009 to slow settlement construction for 10 months in a US-led effort to encourage Palestinians to renew peace talks.

This year, he took his positions to the national political arena. Two months ago, he captured the chairmanship of the stodgy Jewish Home party from its colorless leader and set out to transform the party's image. Bennett took his campaign everywhere from remote West Bank settlement outposts to trendy Tel Aviv bars.

The strategy worked, and Jewish Home started gaining in the polls. Despite past conflicts, Bennett says he and Netanyahu can work together.