Naftali Bennett: A Star is Born

by Rabbi Dow Marmur

Despite the clouds formed by the sharpening election campaign, a new star can be clearly discerned on Israel’s political firmament. His name is Naftali Bennet, the new leader of the nationalist (modern) Orthodox party, Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish home) that can trace its origins to the once moderate National Religious Party.

The 40-year old Bennet had been part of the entourage of Prime Minister Netanyahu until he resigned soon thereafter to become, first, the leader of the settler movement, and now in charge of a political party. Not long ago he sold the high-tech company he formed for – this has to be written out in words – one hundred and forty-five million dollars. He has a distinguished army record and is a major in the reserves.

The combination of wealth, youth, military record, guts and a flair for publicity has, not surprisingly, earned him in the media the title “charismatic.”

Bennet seems to be appealing to many members of Netanyahu’s Likud party in search of a new, young and more uncompromising leader on the political right, not least when it comes to defend the settlements. In an interview last Thursday he stated that if commanded to participate in their evacuation he’d opt for conscientious objection.

A Likud leader, Deputy Prime Minister and former Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, seized that opportunity to attack Bennet. He’s reported to have said: “The State of Israel’s existence is predicated on the IDF, and the IDF’s existence is predicated on obeying orders. Anyone who calls for insubordination is irresponsible, and erodes the basic values of the Jewish state.” The fact that a leading Likud member was so quick to say it must be seen in the context of the election campaign. And Netanyahu has followed it up by stating that a person who refuses to obey IDF orders has no place in his cabinet.

But the Prime Minister’s real aim is more to outdo Bennet than to attack hm. This may explain Netanyahu’s hawkish approach and repeated announcements of new building projects in the settlements and inEast Jerusalem; often the same project gets announced more than once for maximum impact at home.

In this scheme of things, the ever more emphatic condemnations by the international community, including the United States, turns out to be music to the ears of Netanyahu and his supporters: it tells people at home that they don’t have to vote for the rich but inexperienced upstart to achieve their aims, because he, the trusted leader of the country, can deliver it with much greater force.

But despite the Prime Minister’s valiant efforts, polls indicate that Bennet’s party will get around a dozen seats in the next Knesset (10% of the total) taking some of them from other right-wing parties, notably Netanyahu’s, to become the third party (after Likud-Beiteinu and Labor) and thus almost certainly a member of the next government, despite Netanyahu’s current protestation to the contrary today.

But this may not be all bad news. If another non-Orthodox party – and several have hinted to that effect – will want to join the coalition, it may be possible – or am I dreaming? – to form a government without the ultra-Orthodox. Though Bennet and his party are Orthodox, they’re on the modern side. He has also hinted at wanting to engage with non-Orthodox (more likely secular than Reform and Conservative) groups.

Things may not be good, but they needn’t be quite as bad as it seems.

Rabbi Dow Marmur is the rabbi emeritus at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Ontario. Before becoming senior rabbi of Holy Blossom in 1983, Rabbi Marmur served two congregations in Britain. He retired in 2000.