Liel Liebovitz profiles the settler leader and tech entrepreneur Naftali Bennett, who leads the Habayit Hayehudi (“Jewish Home”) party, which is likely to become the second-biggest in the Knesset after Israel’s elections next week. The piece is unusually helpful for readers like myself, who find Israel’s domestic politics somewhat baffling. Just a few months ago, Avigdor Lieberman was Israel’s most prominent nationalist politician. Due to legal problems, however, Lieberman is now out of favor–and Bennett is benefiting from his fall.
The most interesting thing about the piece is the way it places Bennett’s career in historical context. Although it is now among the most powerful elements in Israeli society, the so-called “national religious” faction that Bennett represents was originally marginal to the Zionist movement, which was militantly secular. Then:
The Six Day War fundamentally changed the game, emboldening Kook’s followers and believers in religious Zionism. Under the tutelage of [Rabbi Abraham Isaac] Kook’s son Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, a new generation of young religious Zionists came to see their mission as once again settling the newly liberated lands. It was as much, perhaps, a personal awakening as it was a theological one: The 1967 generation, the sons and daughters of religious Zionism’s original guard, looked at their parents—milquetoast, many of them foreign-born, nearly all of them political moderates—and boasted that they would do better. They would rebuild the Jewish state east of the Green Line.
Thus, the settler movement was born—and the religious Zionist movement was split in two. On the one hand, the older generation continued to understand itself in terms of the old balancing act between the dictates of the Torah and the ethos of the state, a challenge that doomed them to play second fiddle on either side of the church-state divide. On the other, the new generation was awash in Messianic zeal. In 1967, for example, one of its most incandescent leaders, Hanan Porat, wrote with characteristic ecstasy: “Here I am—for the priesthood, for the kingdom, to kill, to be killed. O Lord, here I am. … This is how I understand the true meaning of the word pioneer.”
Bennett is the political heir of the “pioneers” of the settlements. Although he has an affable manner, his proposals during the campaign include annexation of 62 percent of the West Bank and continued military control of the rest. As an opponent of a two-state solution, Bennett’s popularity is bad news not only for Palestinians, but also for American interests in the region. At the same time, it provides a useful reminder that religious nationalism is the only ideology that retains it appeal to ordinary people in Israel and around the world (including the United States). One of the challenges of a “realist” foreign policy that eschews divine sanction is to take account of this fact without embracing it.