The Article: THE PARTY FAITHFUL by David Remnick in The New Yorker.
The Text: At a makeshift theatre in the port of Tel Aviv, hundreds of young immigrants from Melbourne, the Five Towns, and other points in the Anglophone diaspora gathered recently to hear from the newest phenomenon in Israeli politics, Naftali Bennett. A forty-year-old settlement leader, software entrepreneur, and ex-Army commando, Bennett promises to build a sturdy electoral bridge between the religious and the secular, the hilltop outposts of the West Bank and the start-up suburbs of the coastal plain. This is something new in the history of the Jewish state. Bennett is a man of the far right, but he is eager to advertise his cosmopolitan bona fides. Although he was the director general of the Yesha Council, the main political body of the settler movement, he does not actually live in a settlement. He lives in Ra’anana, a small city north of Tel Aviv that is full of programmers and executives. He is as quick to make reference to an episode of “Seinfeld” as he is to the Torah portion of the week. He constantly updates his Facebook page. A dozen years ago, he moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan to seek his fortune in high tech, and his wife, Gilat, went to work as a pastry chef at chic restaurants like Aureole, Amuse, and Bouley Bakery. Her crème brûlée, he declares proudly, “restored the faith of the Times food critic in the virtues of crème brûlée.”
Closer to his ideological core is an unswerving conviction that the Palestinian Arabs of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem might as well relinquish their hopes for a sovereign state. The Green Line, which demarcates the occupied territories from Israel proper, “has no meaning,” he says, and only a friyer, a sucker, would think otherwise. As one of his slick campaign ads says, “There are certain things that most of us understand will never happen: ‘The Sopranos’ are not coming back for another season . . . and there will never be a peace plan with the Palestinians.” If Bennett becomes Prime Minister someday—and his ambition is as plump and glaring as a harvest moon—he intends to annex most of the West Bank and let Arab cities like Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin be “self-governing” but “under Israeli security.”
“I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state,” he says of the Palestinians. No more negotiations, “no more illusions.” Let them eat crème brûlée.
Onstage, he waited as a nervous host flambéed the introduction: “He loves a good run! His favorite ice cream is pistachio! And his favorite movie is ‘The Shawshank Redemption’! . . . Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Naftali Bennett!” Bennett acknowledged the applause and stepped to the lip of the stage. He is modest in height and wears a plain open-neck shirt and khakis. Like many Israeli men faced with the first sign of male-pattern baldness, he mows his hair close to the skull. He wears a small kippa—knitted, like those worn by religious Zionists and modern Orthodox, but not large and knitted, like those of more radical settlers among them.
He looked grave. The previous Friday, the Prime Minister, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, had gone on three evening television shows to blast Bennett for having declared that he would refuse any order to expel Jews from a settlement. Not that Israel intends to dismantle settlements anytime soon—on the contrary, construction proceeds apace, “facts on the ground” accumulate—but this debating point touched on a crucial matter. Bennett talks about “reviving” Zionism through an infusion of “Jewish values,” including a sense of the sacredness of the land, but he is also a man of the military, and it would not do, as a soldier or as a candidate, to endorse a campaign of disobedience. Finally, Bennett recanted. And yet somehow he felt wronged.
“I’ve gone through a pretty crazy weekend,” Bennett told the crowd sheepishly. He reached into his pocket. He took out his iPhone and started to scroll. A banner flanking the stage read, “Something Fresh,” and this moment—a politician Googling for wisdom while the crowd waits patiently—was part of the freshness.
“I’d love to quote a wonderful sentence that has been guiding me for years,” he said. “It’s . . . Teddy Roosevelt . . . where . . . ah, yes!”
Bennett looked down at his palm and read from T.R.’s 1910 speech at the Sorbonne on “Citizenship in a Republic,” a chestnut reheated by generations of wounded, righteous politicians—including Richard Nixon on the day he left the White House in disgrace.
“It is not the critic who counts,” he began. A few Americans sitting near me nodded and smiled. “Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
Bennett looked up with an expression of satisfaction.
“That’s pretty amazing,” he said. “In other words, ‘Just do it.’ ”
Bennett made his pitch in the American style—autobiographically. He described how he had been compelled to enter the electoral arena after fighting in the Second Lebanon War, in 2006. “We failed,” he said. “Tzahal”—the Army—“failed. It was a draw at best.” Israel had done too little to take the war to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The command structure was confused and timid, the politicians were lacking in resolve. “There was a profound problem of spirit in the desire to win,” he said. “Every day at 2 or 3 P.M., I would call through the radio my commanders to suggest this or that and they would say, ‘No, no, wait until evening, we’ll talk then.’ But you don’t win wars by doing nothing.” This was a cartoonish description of the monthlong conflict, but it was a cartoon with political utility: Bennett, who was a member of Sayeret Matkal, the most prestigious outfit in the Israel Defense Forces, projects himself as modern and rational, but also as unimpeachably tough.
Although this is the first time that Bennett has run for office, he is not a political naïf. Between 2006 and 2008, he worked as chief of staff for Netanyahu, who, as the leader of the Likud Party, was then in the opposition. Bennett, along with Ayelet Shaked, a secular woman from Tel Aviv who is in her mid-thirties, ran Netanyahu’s affairs with the hope of returning him to the Prime Minister’s office. But both left abruptly, under circumstances that they won’t discuss. This being Israel, those circumstances are known to all: Bennett and Shaked ran afoul of Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who is described in the Israeli press as a combination of Mary Todd Lincoln and Nancy Reagan—high-strung, paranoid, intrusive. Sara Netanyahu regarded Bennett and Shaked as suspiciously ambitious, and made their lives impossible. Shaked is now a deputy in Bennett’s movement, and she told me she is convinced that he will be Prime Minister “in ten or fifteen years—he’s made of the right stuff.”
Bennett and Netanyahu have many political positions in common, but they come from different ideological lineages. Netanyahu comes from the Revisionist line of Zionism—the conservative, secular nationalism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who, in opposition to David Ben-Gurion and the Labor movement, argued for territorial maximalism, a Jewish state “on both banks of the Jordan River.” Jabotinsky died in 1940, but he was the forebear of the Greater Israel ideology of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir and the Likud Party. Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, a historian of the Spanish Inquisition, worked as Jabotinsky’s secretary. When Bibi was Prime Minister the first time, in the mid-nineties, I interviewed Benzion, and his ferocious distrust of Arabs was matched only by his determination that his son resist international pressure to relinquish land. In large measure, Bibi is his father’s political son. And yet, in 2009, he gave a speech at Bar-Ilan University in which he seemingly broke with Revisionist ideology and Likud politics by talking about a “demilitarized” Palestinian state. Netanyahu has done almost nothing to follow through on a two-state solution, and most Likud politicians today contend that he was deeply ambivalent about the speech, which caused a serious rift with his father and within the Party. They are convinced that he did it mainly to placate Barack Obama.
Bennett sees the Bar-Ilan speech as a betrayal. He has called on Netanyahu to retract it. To Bennett, there is nothing complex about the question of occupation. There is no occupation. “The land is ours”: that is pretty much the end of the debate. “I will do everything in my power, forever, to fight against a Palestinian state being founded in the Land of Israel,” he said. “I don’t think there is a clear-cut solution for the Israeli-Arab conflict in this generation.” During the recent assault on Gaza, Bennett was a proponent of a ground invasion and criticized Netanyahu when he limited the conflict to a week of air strikes.
The lessons that Bennett draws from recent history are familiar, and not only on the right: If Israel were to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state, what is now the West Bank would quickly become a second Gaza—a Hamas-led bastion of Islamic radicalism, a launch pad for rocket fire aimed at Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport. If Israel were to sign a deal, Bennett told his audience in Tel Aviv, “we’d get praise from the world and, two weeks later, we’ll see the first demonstrations on the Green Line. And, if I were the copywriter, the signs would say, ‘I Want Home.’ ” The Palestinians, that is, would then push for Jaffa and Haifa, Ramle and Lod, and the rest of what they call historical Palestine. “If they could press a button and we’d evaporate, they would, and vice versa,” he said. Bennett’s solution has become a commonplace on the right—virtual annexation followed by a potential exodus of dispirited Palestinians eastward into Jordan, where Palestinians are already a majority.
On occasion, Bennett will do battle in the old Israeli style. On television one night, he got into a shouting match with Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Oslo Peace Accord, in the mid-nineties, telling him that the pact with Yasir Arafat had caused the deaths of sixteen hundred Israelis in terror attacks. “It’s on your hands!” he charged. “You should be ashamed! You gave them guns and they shot at us!” But, for the most part, that has not been his mode on the campaign trail. In Tel Aviv, Bennett was mild, absorbing, suggestive, flashing a pleasant, rabbity smile. As he took questions from the crowd, he was careful to acknowledge his general sympathy for democratic rights, his general tolerance (“I say live and let live”), his familiarity with gay soldiers (“I could tell you stories!”), but, in the end, his positions were absolute. “Israel is ours,” he said. “For thirty-eight hundred years, it’s ours.”
The Israeli elections will be held on January 22nd. Netanyahu is almost sure to keep his position. But that is not the central story of this political moment. Naftali Bennett is. His party, Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), represents the merger and reinvigoration of two older religious parties, and it is rapidly gaining ground. Many expect a third-place finish, behind Labor, which would be a remarkable achievement; second place is not inconceivable.
More broadly, the story of the election is the implosion of the center-left and the vivid and growing strength of the radical right. What Bennett’s rise, in particular, represents is the attempt of the settlers to cement the occupation and to establish themselves as a vanguard party, the ideological and spiritual core of the entire country. Just as a small coterie of socialist kibbutzniks dominated the ethos and the public institutions of Israel in the first decades of the state’s existence, the religious nationalists, led by the settlers, intend to do so now and in the years ahead. In the liberal tribune Haaretz, the columnist Ari Shavit wrote, “What is now happening is impossible to view as anything but the takeover by a colonial province of its mother country.”
The political platforms of the center-left parties are halfhearted and almost entirely domestic in their focus. The Arab world is in a state of chaotic revolt, the Palestinians are considering a third intifada––and the Labor Party is running on the price of apartments and cottage cheese. The political rationale is obvious to all. Although the majority of the country supports partition and a Palestinian state, it does not trust the Palestinians and therefore has become convinced that nothing will happen for at least a generation. The narrative is, by now, ingrained. There have been countless plans for division and resolution—the U.N. partition plan in 1947; the Oslo process in the mid-nineties; Ehud Barak’s offers to Yasir Arafat at Camp David and Taba, in 2000 and 2001; Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, in 2005; Ehud Olmert’s offer to Mahmoud Abbas, in 2007—and with what results? Wars, intifadas, terror, rocket fire, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, hostility in the U.N. and Europe, threats of boycotts and delegitimatization. Most Israelis no longer care that the Palestinians see this stark narrative of rejectionism and terror in a very different way; there is scant recognition of the role of settlements, roadblocks, harassment, evictions, detentions, the abuses of the I.D.F., and much else.
“No one is talking about the core issues,” Tzipi Livni, a former Foreign Minister, told me between campaign stops in Jerusalem, because after four years of Netanyahu “there is no hope for peace.” Most people, she said, “think, ‘The Palestinians refuse every offer,’ ‘The whole world is against us anyway,’ ‘They are all anti-Semitic,’ and so on. And the ideological settlers think that every day that passes without negotiations is a victory.”
Livni’s frustration with Bennett’s ascent in the polls was palpable. “To be right wing is to be strong, to be left wing is to be weak, appeasing, to be naïve—and ‘We can’t afford naïveté in this region,’ ” she said, mimicking the voice of Bennett’s expanding base. “He is the new Sabra! The new Israeli!”
Leaders of the traditional peace camp hardly conceal their gloom. Hagit Ofran, the director of the Settlement Watch project of the once influential Peace Now movement, told me, “Our fight today is not so much to persuade the Israeli public that we need two states. The biggest challenge is to ward off the despair and the indifference.”
Palestinians who are still in favor of a two-state solution and who have worked with Israelis over the years watch the elections with anxiety. “This is all very bad news for the Palestinians,” Ghassan Khatib, the vice-president of Birzeit University, in Palestine, told me. “If Netanyahu and this new crowd come to power, there will be two casualties—the Palestinian Authority and the two-state solution. The simple practical changes on the ground—the settlement projects, the daily incidents of settler violence against our people—just do not allow for a two-state solution. Also, the radicalization of public opinion in Israel and the radicalization of the leadership reinforce each other. And that, of course, has an influence on public opinion in Palestine. The percentage of people here who support armed struggle is going up for the first time after ten years of decline. The Palestinian majority is still in favor of a two-state solution, but hopes are fading all the time.”
Right-wing politicians listen to all this and smile. They are delighted. They are emboldened. Danny Danon, a Likud leader who recently suggested that, for every rocket launched by Hamas, Israel “delete” one neighborhood in Gaza, said to me, “I tell my colleagues on the left in the Knesset, ‘You are an endangered species. We’ll build a nature reserve for you.’ ”
One clear sign that the center of gravity had shifted in Israeli politics came a couple of months ago, when, in preparation for the January elections, Netanyahu formed an alliance with Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the Russian-émigré party, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel, Our Home). Lieberman was not only Israel’s Foreign Minister but its most prominent xenophobe. In Washington not long ago, I heard him say disdainfully that the Palestinians could not be expected to rule themselves until their average annual income was ten thousand dollars—a level reached in Israel forty years after statehood. He also counselled the Palestinians to read Voltaire and Rousseau, which was odd advice coming from an admirer of Vladimir Putin. Lieberman is so given to voicing outrageous opinions that he is generally shielded from interviews with the international press. One other thing: he was recently indicted on corruption charges, and had to resign as Foreign Minister. None of this is helping Netanyahu’s case against his fresh young opponent.
Not only did Netanyahu join forces with Lieberman, whom he distrusts; he has seen his own party move far to his right. Each party puts forward a list of candidates; first on the list is the party leader. Of the top twenty names on Netanyahu’s list, twelve support at least partial annexation of the West Bank. The Likud list was purged of relative moderates, like Dan Meridor, who was considered soft on the Palestinians, and Menachem Begin’s son, Benny, who is considered too respectful of democratic institutions.
Right-wing politicians have long railed against what they see as the dominance of leftist élites in the media, academia, human-rights organizations, and, especially, the Supreme Court—the nemesis of the far right—but they do so now from an unassailable position of power. Their ethnocentrism is full-throated, their suspicion of democratic institutions unabashed. A typical case is Miri Regev, a former I.D.F. spokesman and a Likud candidate: she has called Arab members of the Knesset “traitors” and undocumented African immigrants “a cancer.” Last year, Regev tried, and failed, to pass an annexation bill in the Knesset.
A rough analogy of the national-religious camp’s effect on the Likud is the Tea Party’s radicalization of the Republican Party. Just as the Republican House leadership moved farther to the right as it accommodated its Tea Party freshmen, Netanyahu will have to form a cabinet that acknowledges the presence of an increasing number of radical right-wingers in his and other parties, including Bennett’s. This process, however, did not begin with the elections. “We were around before the Tea Party and we are already deep within the Likud,” Danny Danon told me. “This is not an episode that passes with the wind. We are here to stay.” Danon is voluble in his contempt for Barack Obama and his admiration for Glenn Beck. In 2011, he invited the broadcaster to Jerusalem. “In the past three or four years,” he said admiringly, “Beck was very instrumental in providing good P.R. for Israel.”
Theodore Herzl, the founding visionary of the Jewish state, would not have anticipated the co-option of Zionism by a right-wing religious movement. Herzl was reared in a secular German-speaking home. He marked his thirteenth birthday not with a bar mitzvah but with a “confirmation.” According to his biographer Amos Elon, Herzl “dismissed all religion.” In high school, he wrote an essay determining that “clever frauds from Moses and Jesus to the Count of Saint Germain have already been exposed by the human spirit,” and his opinion never much wavered. His Zionism, fired by a prescient reading of European anti-Semitism, was an extension of European nationalism. Herzl’s Zionism bore no traces of religious messianism. In “Der Judenstaat” (“The Jewish State”), his manifesto, Herzl vowed to keep the theocrats “in their temples, just as we shall keep our professional Army in the barracks.”
Nearly all the early Zionist leaders and Israeli politicians shared a similar view. In the first two decades of Israel’s history, from 1948 to 1967, Zionism was a predominantly secular form of nationalism, and a challenge to the Biblical version of Jewish history. As Moshe Halbertal, a scholar of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University, put it to me, Zionism provided “an endangered people with an alternative to the state of exile and to the state of redemption.”
For the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, who believe that the Jews should return to their Biblical homeland only after the appearance of the mashiach, the Messiah, Zionism was a threat, even an apostasy, which ran counter to the traditional attachment to Jewish law. Their resistance to the establishment of a Jewish state was, for the early Israeli leadership, a political problem. Even before the U.N. approved the partition of Palestine, in 1947, David Ben-Gurion, who believed that the ultra-Orthodox would become secular over the generations, quieted their objections with old-school political deals. He allowed the haredim to control religiously charged matters like marriage, adoption, and burial; he assured the rabbis that only kosher food would be served in state-run institutions, including the Army. Ultra-Orthodox communities formed small political parties, but, rather than rubbing up against the larger, corrupting world, they stayed mostly to themselves; they went to their own schools, were exempt from Army service, and immersed themselves in the study of Torah. For decades, the leaders of the state—the dominant figures in government, the military, the media, culture, and academia—were mainly secular. Israel has never had a religious Prime Minister. (Netanyahu works on the Sabbath, and on the rare occasion that he visits a synagogue it is to practice politics.)
Religious nationalism was yet another strain. One institution that emphasized a religious, even mystical, form of Zionism was the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, a center of study in Jerusalem that revolved around the rabbinical legacy of Avraham Kook and his son Tzvi Yehuda Kook. The Kooks saw the formation of a Jewish state not as a usurpation of tradition but as athalta degeula, an active beginning of redemption. They taught a messianism with no Messiah.
In May, 1967, on the eve of Israeli Independence Day, Tzvi Yehuda Kook gave a sermon before a gathering of current and former rabbinical students. He described his profound disappointment in the 1947 U.N. partition plan, and the fact that the Jews had not been awarded Biblical places like Hebron, where the Patriarchs are buried, and Shiloh, the center of Jewish worship before the building of the First Temple. “I succumbed to this feeling of shock,” he said. “My body torn to shreds, I had nothing to celebrate.” Three weeks after his sermon, Israel defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in six days, and, in doing so, gained the territories of Sinai, the West Bank of the Jordan River (known to Israeli Jews as Judea and Samaria), the Golan Heights, and all of Jerusalem. When the Israel Defense Forces took the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jordanian Army, a platoon commander sent a jeep to bring Kook to the Western Wall. “We hereby inform the people of Israel and the entire world that under heavenly command we have just returned home in the elevations of holiness and our holy city,” Kook said. “We shall never move out of here.”
For Kook, the Kingdom of God was being established in Biblical Israel through the firepower of the I.D.F. But he and his followers at the yeshiva were not the only ones who saw the victory in miraculous and messianic terms. There was a general sense of intoxication in the country and beyond. As the Israeli scholar Ehud Sprinzak writes in his study “The Ascendance of Israel’s Radical Right,” 1967 marked a “mental revolution,” and the smashing of “a twenty-year political paradigm” of national vulnerability. For many, Zionism was now imbued with eschatological significance. The Six-Day War was conflated with the six days of creation. Kook’s sermon, extolling the holiness of the land, was seen as a kind of premonition of the great victory. Religious Zionism, which had been marginal to Israeli politics, gained strength, not least among the first Israelis who came to build settlements in the West Bank. Almost immediately, those settlers appropriated the imagery and self-regard of their left-wing secular predecessors, the kibbutzniks—idealists tilling the land.
To Kook and the religious Zionist leaders who have followed him, the land captured in 1967 is sacred, and integral to the Jewish state and to Judaism itself; possession of places like Shiloh and Hebron is a harbinger of redemption, the End of Days. No U.N. resolution, no Palestinian claimant, no American President had the right to say otherwise. The war of 1973, in which Israel narrowly escaped a military defeat, intensified the messianic sense of possession. The religious Zionists developed a corps among the settlers known as Gush Emunim, the Bloc of the Faithful, which fervently opposed the idea of giving up any part of the land: Sinai to the Egyptians; the Golan to the Syrians; the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
In 1977, Menachem Begin came to power, representing, for the first time, a coalition of constituencies that resented the Labor élite and felt excluded from the mainstream of Israeli life. Begin’s support came from the poorer émigrés from North Africa and Arab states; Jabotinskyite conservatives; the ultra-Orthodox; and religious Zionists, including the settlers. But when Begin, as part of his Camp David settlement with Anwar Sadat, returned the Sinai to Egypt and, with the help of the Army, went about dismantling the Jewish settlements there, leaders of the settler movement felt betrayed. Moshe Levinger, one of its most flamboyant extremists, threatened to carry out an act of suicidal martyrdom.
As government-financed settlements thickened throughout the occupied territories, the P.L.O. carried out violent attacks, and the Palestinian question came to dominate the national argument. Meanwhile, the politics of Gush Emunim became increasingly radical, even breeding a small group of homicidal fundamentalists. In 1984, authorities uncovered plots by a settler group known as the Jewish Underground to bomb Arab buses and to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount. Not long afterward, a Brooklyn-born rabbi, Meir Kahane, was elected to the Knesset on a poisonous political platform. Kahane was unapologetically racist—Arabs, for him, were “cockroaches” and “dogs”—and he was not squeamish about calling for violence. In February, 1994, five months after Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat signed the Oslo Accord, one of Kahane’s followers, an Army doctor named Baruch Goldstein, murdered twenty-nine Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs, in Hebron.
Kahane’s party was banned in 1988 and he was murdered two years later, in New York. His taste for violence may have fired Goldstein, but it did not enter the political mainstream. Yet, as Ami Pedahzur writes in “The Triumph of Israel’s Radical Right,” the traces of Kahane’s legacy—the sacralization of xenophobia—are evident both in the Likud and throughout the radical right.
Much of Naftali Bennett’s support comes from mild-mannered religious suburbanites on both sides of the Green Line, but he has also been blessed by some of the more vehement fundamentalists on the scene. Avichai Rontzki, from 2006 to 2010 the chief rabbi of the I.D.F. and now the head of a yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, helped Bennett form the Jewish Home Party. Rontzki has said that soldiers who show their enemies mercy will be “damned,” and, after a prisoner exchange with the Palestinians that he opposed, he said that the I.D.F. should no longer arrest terrorists but, rather, “kill them in their beds.” Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of the settlement of Kiryat Arba and Hebron, once called Baruch Goldstein “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust”; he endorsed Bennett before moving on to a smaller, more reactionary party.
Both Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, his secular partner, put some distance between themselves and the likes of Rontzki and Lior; they insist that “politicians will make the decisions, not rabbis.” But they will not denounce such voices. The pages of Haaretz routinely report incidents of rabbinical or settler racism, and even many levelheaded conservatives acknowledge that in the past decade a kind of casual anti-Arab rhetoric has infected political life. “There are fewer inhibitions now about expressing hatred for the Arabs,” Yossi Klein Halevi, a scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute, in Jerusalem, told me. “The taboos against hostility toward Arabs have been seriously lowered in these last twelve years since the second intifada. The political culture has changed.” Uri Savir, a liberal and Israel’s chief negotiator of the Oslo Accord, wrote in the Jerusalem Post that “most young Israelis believe that Israeli Arabs do not deserve equal rights, and many believe that their votes count less than Jewish votes—a prescription for racism, not democracy.”
Moshe Feiglin, a settler who is sure to win a seat in the Knesset on the Likud list, is a grim and wiry man afflicted with an acute case of ideological hyperactivity. One day recently, he got himself detained by police trying to pray on the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem. (Jews, who pray below, at the Western Wall, may visit, but not pray on, the Temple Mount, which contains the Al Aqsa Mosque complex and is administered by the Muslim religious leadership.) Feiglin spent the rest of the day at the third annual Conference for the Application of Israeli Sovereignty over Judea and Samaria. The conference was crowded with members of the Knesset, including Likud’s Ze’ev Elkin, who declared that it was time for Israel to “stop conceding and go on the offensive, step by step.” All the speeches favored some form of annexation; the question was how much and how soon. Feiglin, when it was his turn, said that Israel ought to pay Palestinian families in the West Bank half a million dollars each to emigrate. His logic was, at least to him, self-evident: the state, he claimed, was already spending ten per cent of its G.N.P. “to maintain the two-state solution and the Oslo Accord,” what with the separation fence, the Iron Dome anti-missile system, the posting of guards at restaurants and cafés, and other measures. Why not spend the money in a more efficient manner and permanently rid yourself of the problem?
Feiglin is a decade older than Bennett, and less calculating in his manner; he doesn’t pretend to be new and “fresh.” There is no talk of “Seinfeld.” He is severe, humorless, and ascetic; he has said outrageous things about Arabs (“You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic,” he told this magazine in 2004), and he seems to enjoy the listener’s discomfort. It makes him feel forthright and righteous. Born in Haifa, he lives in Karnei Shomron, a settlement of six thousand people, in the West Bank. His chief lieutenant, Shmuel Sackett, was born in Brooklyn, where he was a follower of Meir Kahane.
In 1993, Feiglin and Sackett founded Zo Artzeinu (This Is Our Land), a coalition of religious Zionists who considered the Oslo Accord a violation of Jewish law and political sense. Feiglin organized sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience directed against the government of Yitzhak Rabin. In August, 1995, the organization staged a national demonstration without a permit and managed to block eighty traffic intersections. Feiglin was arrested and charged with sedition; he later satisfied his six-month prison sentence with community service. His memoir of that period, “Where There Are No Men,” describes Zo Artzeinu as if it were the moral and tactical equivalent of the American civil-rights movement.
By the late nineties, Feiglin decided that he could exert more influence through conventional political struggle. For him, Netanyahu, who became Prime Minister in 1996, was too soft, too given to territorial compromise. He organized a Likud faction called Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership).
One evening, I visited his headquarters, in a modest industrial building in Givat Shaul, a neighborhood in Jerusalem heavily populated by ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionists. Feiglin greeted me warily, but he did not hide his excitement at the likely prospect of winning a seat in the Knesset. “It’s like a Rubik’s Cube is being reorganized,” he said. “What happens on the left shows total ideological confusion, a loss of vision. The concept of Oslo has disappeared. On the right, what is fascinating is between Likud and Naftali Bennett. With all modesty, I am behind it. Since Oslo, since Zo Artzeinu, we developed a concept of what the right should do—put a different agenda on the Israeli field and create a new layer of leadership that, instead of coming from the leftist avant-garde, comes from the right avant-garde.”
In Feiglin’s view, secular Zionism tried to gain a measure of acceptance from its neighbors and the world community by relinquishing land. “The concept we’ve started to develop is that the answer is not with the neighbors—it’s with us,” he said. “We are not like all other nations. The Jews are different. Our goal should be to develop our special culture based on the Torah and the Prophets as a message and a symbol to the family of nations, to all of entire humanity.”
I asked Feiglin about some of his deliberately outrageous comments about Arab perfidy. He picked up a croissant from a platter, regarded it, and whispered a blessing. He ate awhile. At last, he said, “I stick to my principles. The problem is not my principles. But I did make some mistakes along the way—not with the words but with the melody.”
Then Feiglin accused the Likud leadership of cheating him out of votes. “But it doesn’t matter—I keep smiling,” he said. He did not smile much.
Behind his desk, there is a large photomontage of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. He would like to see a Third Temple built on the Temple Mount—what the Arabs call the Haram al-Sharif. This is no longer an unusual position; at least seven people on Netanyahu’s list support the construction of a Third Temple. “I believe in the Bible,” Feiglin said. “I believe that just as most visions of the Prophets already came true against all odds—the fact that the Jewish people survived from all corners of the world and came back to the Promised Land, as promised in the Bible, is the most fascinating miracle in history—what still remains to be done will happen, too. At the end, the Third Temple will be built.”
When I asked him how, he shrugged, and said, “Do you think Herzl knew how it was going to happen? Read his book. He had no idea. It all happened in a different way. All he did was plant the dream in people’s mind and the rest is history.”
Finally, I asked Feiglin about his latest thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian question. When I said “Palestinian,” it was as if I had uttered a revolting oath.
“ ‘Palestinians’?” he said. “Orwell wrote his book ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and there is talk there about ‘Newspeak,’ the ‘Big Lie.’ ” The Big Lie, I was to understand, was the very idea of a Palestinian people. “Do you know about a nation without a history?” he said. “How can a nation exist without history? They are Arabs. They identify with a big Arab nation, and there are many Arab tribes. Every Israeli understands that if, God forbid, Israel disappeared there would not be one Palestinian in the world, because the Palestinians’ self-definition isn’t for a Palestinian state but for war with the Jews. . . . The P.L.O. was established before 1967, and they never tried to create a Palestinian state in the territories when they had them. Their desire will always be to seize any territory last held by a Jew. There was never in history a group that longed to create a state that got more recognition and help from everyone, including us, and yet it is not happening. It just is not.”
In “The Counterlife,” Philip Roth’s novel of clashing and alternate identities, Nathan Zuckerman leaves his home in London to track down his brother, a New Jersey dentist who has forsaken both his family and Wendy, his highly compliant office assistant, and joined a settlement near Hebron. At a Sabbath dinner there, Nathan encounters the settlement’s leader, Mordecai Lippman, a self-adoring performer “as shameless as some legendary courtroom litigator cunning in the use of booming crescendo and insinuating diminuendo to sway the emotions of the jury.” Lippman upbraids Zuckerman about the delusions of the Diaspora and mocks “all the niceys and the goodies” in Tel Aviv who “want to be humane.”
Roth’s Lippman, the fruit of a real-life encounter with Elyakim Haetzni, a Hebron-based demagogue, was once a letter-perfect depiction of settler leaders—pale, austere, proudly self-dramatic men and women, who flaunted their disdain for Western weakness, Arab duplicity, and all the deluded saps who believed in the “false god called peace,” as Haetzni once put it. Haetzni did not think that his settlement, Kiryat Arba, existed to protect Tel Aviv; Tel Aviv existed to protect the holiness of Kiryat Arba. The settlements were the most authentic realization of Zionism. A figure like Haetzni reminded the journalist and historian Amos Elon of “one of the French integralists of the nineteenth century, the fathers of European fascism, who believed not in God but in Catholicism quintessentially expressing the Glory of France.”
Naftali Bennett is the face of the next generation of religious nationalism. Its world view is much the same––Haetzni agrees with Bennett’s annexation plan––but it is more confident and better packaged. “The crazies are no longer in the forefront,” Moshe Halbertal said. “The settlement project is settled. And now it has gone from a radical avant-garde to a middle-class establishment. They are no longer about messianic fantasy.”
There are settlement leaders who are willing to perform their outrage and unashamedly give their support to all kinds of human-rights violations—always sure to put air quotes around “human rights”—but the more typical, and powerful, settler leader now is someone like Dani Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council, the settlers’ main political organization. Dayan was born in Argentina; his family came to Israel in 1971, and, until the first intifada, in 1987, he lived in Tel Aviv. He became rich in the software business. He and his wife had their wedding ceremony on the ramp to the Temple Mount, the better to do something “significant” that day. They moved to Ma’ale Shomron, a settlement in the West Bank, out of a sense of mission.
“It was the right thing to do,” Dayan told me one afternoon in Jerusalem. “Yair Lapid”—a former television host who is now a politician—“used to ask his guests, ‘What is Israel in your eyes?’ Some said it was sitting on the promenade in Tel Aviv at sunset and looking at the sea and drinking a beer, eating a cold watermelon. And I like that, too. But for me, in this rough neighborhood where we live, the Zionist enterprise needs something deeper that includes Shiloh and Beit El. This is why we came here. . . . I’m a completely secular person, even a liberal person, but I sincerely believe that without Hebron, and all it represents from a historical and cultural point of view, we are a shallow people.”
Dayan’s “liberalism” is stylistic, associational. Some members of his family are on the Israeli left. And he is embarrassed by the thugs among the settlers who carry out “price tag” reprisals: torching mosques, cutting down olive trees, harassing and beating up Arabs. But, ideologically, he is a clarion voice in the increasingly assured right-wing Israeli chorus that tells the Palestinians and the world that the settlers have achieved their goal, that they are the “facts on the ground” that will rule out the establishment of a Palestinian state. “We’re a key player—maybe the key player,” he said. “We are the focus. Everything is a response to what we do. The fact that we are here and develop here is the ultimate political maneuver that sets the reality. Why do we prevail? We’ve reached the point of irreversibility.”
Dayan is confident that the settlers’ level of commitment dwarfs that of any other faction. The left shows its commitment, he says, “by pushing the ‘like’ button on the last editorial in Haaretz.”
Dayan has been critical of both Barack Obama for “misreading” the Middle East—the right, in general, is convinced that Obama “lost” Egypt—and Netanyahu for delivering the Bar-Ilan speech, three years ago. Now, at least, Netanyahu no longer makes any pretense of pursuing negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Dayan is confident that Netanyahu has sensed the movement to the hard right and will not combat it. But he is always on guard. “There are mornings when I wake up and think Netanyahu is serious about a two-state solution and others when I think he is bluffing the whole world,” Dayan told me. “And I suspect the same is true with Netanyahu.”
Starting in the late eighties, the religious Zionists in the settlements and beyond embarked on a new strategy, one that took them from the fringes of political life to its center. In 1988, Eli Sadan, a rabbi and a disciple of Tzvi Yehuda Kook, established Bnei David, a post-high-school mechina, or religious academy, in the settlement of Eli, for students who would soon enter the Army. Sadan’s aim was to begin populating the most important public institution in the country with the devout. “The I.D.F. and other Zionist institutions were created without any truly Jewish influence,” Sadan once told the Jerusalem Post. “And our goal is to change that.” The result is that such academies have proliferated, and the Army’s officer corps is now immensely more religious than it was.
The national-religious camp has also made a concerted effort to “penetrate” other national institutions and the business world. It has demographics—and time—on its side; the birth rate among religious families is much higher than in the secular community. “These people feel that they no longer have to worship the secular inventors of this country,” Chaim Levinson, who covers the national-religious community for Haaretz, told me. “Naftali Bennett represents this generation.”
I arranged to meet Bennett again at his home, in Ra’anana. We originally agreed on nine in the morning, but the night before he changed the time to ten. I arrived from Jerusalem a few minutes early, and he answered the door but asked me to wait. He was just finishing a tutorial with a local rabbi on the weekly parsha, or Torah passage—the last passage in Genesis.
“Wander around,” he said. “Make yourself at home.”
Bennett’s house is large, modern, filled with sunlight. He and his wife have four children, ranging in age from six months to seven years. There were toys and strollers scattered everywhere, and open packages of Huggies. The place didn’t have the ascetic feel of a settler outpost: there was a Viking stove, a Nespresso machine, laptops, flat-screen TVs. This was the style of the bourgeois pioneer.
Finally, Bennett came in. We made coffee and went out to the green back yard to talk. More toys, a barbecue. I’d heard people compare Ra’anana to Englewood, New Jersey—prosperous, good schools, close to the city—and it felt that way, but with better weather.
Bennett’s parents are from San Francisco and came to Israel just after the Six-Day War. They were not religious. They volunteered to work on a pig farm at a kibbutz called Dafna, in the Upper Galilee, near the Lebanese border. After a while, Bennett said, “they didn’t like the socialist, communal stuff, it wasn’t for them.” They went to Haifa, where Bennett’s father worked as a fund-raiser for the Technion, a leading university of science and engineering. Israel, though, wasn’t all they imagined, and, in 1973, they returned briefly to San Francisco. The Yom Kippur War drew them back. Over the years, the family became increasingly religious, aligned with the kippot srugot, the knitted yarmulkes—the national-religious camp.
As a boy, Naftali looked up to warriors, above all. One hero was Yoni Netanyahu, who, in 1976, led the famous raid to free more than a hundred Israeli hostages from their Palestinian captors at the Entebbe airport, in Uganda. Yoni Netanyahu—Benjamin’s older brother—was the only Israeli who died in the raid, and a posthumous book of his letters, which became a totemic document of Zionist fortitude and heroism, was at Bennett’s bedside. (The Bennetts named their first child Yoni.) Naftali was obsessed, too, with another revered, but more problematic, commando—Meir Har-Zion, who, after his sister was killed by Bedouins, in 1955, when she was hiking in Jordan, crossed into Jordan with three of his friends from the Army and killed five Bedouins from the same tribe. Har-Zion escaped a jail sentence only with the help of Ben-Gurion. “That wasn’t my focus,” Bennett told me. “Those were different times, like the Old West, with cowboys and Indians.”
As a young man, Bennett went into an officer-training course, and, for years, he did not wear a kippa. But after the Rabin assassination, in 1995, he said, “I put it back on. The backlash of the Rabin assassination was a backlash against all the religious—blame them!—which I thought was very unfair. The religious were being kicked, so I did it to be a good example.” As a soldier in Sayeret Matkal, Bennett said, his job was to go behind enemy lines in Lebanon and “kill as many terrorists as possible.”
After finishing his Army service, he studied law at Hebrew University and met Gilat. “She is from a secular house,” he said, smiling. “She sort of hit on me, and the rest is history.” The two lived together for a while and married a couple of years later.
While still in university, Bennett, like so many other Israelis, decided to get into high tech. At first, he was a “Q.A. guy”—quality assurance—checking for bugs, “as low as it gets,” and then he got into software sales. In 1999, he and a few friends decided that it was time to start a business of their own. “We didn’t even have an idea!” They worked on a single-use credit card that would enable secure financial transactions, “so if someone hacks Amazon and steals your information you’re only out one purchase.”
Bennett and his wife lived for four months in the West Bank settlement of Beit Aryeh and then, in 2000, made their move to Manhattan to try to rouse interest in his software idea. “But it turned out we had an Indian and an Irish competitor and they kicked our ass.” Then the tech bubble burst. “We had, like, three years in the company of shit,” he recalled. “It was just survival. I went all over the country with my laptop.” Bennett and his friends went to work refining their ideas for privacy software. Gilat, meanwhile, was working as a pastry chef. She gradually became more religious after she joined a “beginner’s minyan,” or service, at Kehilath Jeshurun, on East Eighty-fifth Street.
Bennett’s strongest attraction for the secular bourgeois is his business success. Frequently, in both the Israeli and the foreign press, it is said simply that Bennett developed anti-fraud security software for financial institutions and sold his company, Cyota, for a hundred and forty-five million dollars. An impression is left of immense wealth. But the more I asked about it the clearer it became that, after splitting the proceeds of the sale of Cyota, in 2005, with three partners and various rounds of investors, he came away with three or four million dollars before taxes. More than enough not to work for a long while and to make some investments, he said, “but not enough so the kids don’t have to work.”
Bennett’s strategy as a politician has been to appeal to the generation of religious Zionists who, like him, have entered the ranks of business, the officer corps, the media, and other mainstream institutions. He drives from one yeshiva to another, one settlement to another, speaking. Even the battle with Netanyahu over settlement evacuation helped Bennett; it eliminated his name-recognition problem.
The way he sees the world, the “service ethos” of Labor Zionism “evaporated and dissolved,” leaving behind a “vacuum of values.” Herzl’s Zionism, which was based on creating security for an endangered people, dissipated. “It was so powerful that the first generation had this mission to re-create the state, and it worked,” he said. “But only so much. My generation didn’t feel an existential threat, and it was gone.” What he represents, he tells his audiences, “is a handover of the baton from security-based Zionism to a Jewish-based Zionism. If we don’t do that, it won’t work. I don’t want to show off, but, among the national-religious leaders, that stuff—corruption, et cetera—doesn’t happen. In the Army, in the settlements, whether you like it or not, there is idealism.”
Bennett’s idealism, however, is based on annexation. The settlement project has put four hundred thousand Israelis in the West Bank; under any version of a peace plan remotely acceptable to both sides, well over a hundred thousand settlers would have to be uprooted. “And that just is not going to happen,” he insisted, yet again.
I mentioned intelligence reports about growing Palestinian frustration, about the prospects of a third intifada. Bennett seemed unfazed. “Generally, Israelis care less about this issue than before,” he said. “A third intifada will come about only because of our setting unreasonable expectations.”
Very few Israelis are interested in taking moral instruction from the “goodies” of the Tel Aviv left or the visiting “niceys” from, say, the Upper West Side. Even the majority, who acknowledge the occupation and its cruelty, and favor a Palestinian state, ask: Why should we accept reprimand and diplomatic sanction from the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia? From Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who is killing his people by the tens of thousands, or from Mohamed Morsi, in Egypt, who, in a video posted on the Muslim Brotherhood’s YouTube Channel in 2010, referred to Israelis as “warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs”? From Britain and France, with their histories of colonialism and slaughter, or the United States, whose drones have, well out of view of television crews, killed scores of civilians?
Meanwhile, Israeli politics continues its seemingly endless trek to the right. Every day, the Web carries the voice of another leader of the settler movement who insists that the settlers are the vanguard now, that the old verities are to be challenged, if not eliminated. Early last year, Benny Katzover, a leader in the settlement of Elon Moreh, told a Chabad paper, Beit Mashiach, “I would say that today Israeli democracy has one central mission, and that is to disappear. Israeli democracy has finished its historical role, and it must be dismantled and bow before Judaism.”
Despite the air of defeat that clings to the left, the center-left vote will still account for around fifty of a hundred and twenty seats. A political shift in its favor is always possible. Assaf Sharon, a leader of Molad, a think tank for the “renewal of Israeli democracy,” told me he believes that the national-religious position that the settlements are “irreversible” is “bullshit.” Sharon had been a member of Bnei Akiva, the Zionist youth movement. Unlike the majority of Israelis, he is intimately familiar with the settlements, most recently as a demonstrator against their expansion. One afternoon at Molad’s headquarters, in the German Colony, in Jerusalem, he said that the drama surrounding the evacuation of eight thousand settlers from Gaza seven years ago “hyped up things in our imagination, but it masked the fact that the settlement enterprise comes from the government breathing life into it. If the government were to remove the phones, the transportation, the energy, the subsidies, it would dry up. Most settlers are sensible bourgeois and will pack up their bags. There are a few thousand crazies who can make trouble, but we can deal with that.”
But in the world of Middle Eastern politics—a world that now includes Syria in flames, Egypt in chaos, and even Jordan in a state of instability—the prospects are dim for anything other than an increasingly volatile status quo. “It seems that the next Israeli government will be much more radical,” Mkhaimar Abusada, a political-science professor at Al Azhar University, in Gaza, told me. “We are going to witness more settlements, a greater encirclement of East Jerusalem, and more frustration and despair. Which means we’ll have one of two scenarios: either meaningless negotiations or, if the stalemate continues, a new round of violence. And, in the end, violence is not a possibility—it’s almost a certainty.” Tzipi Livni told me that after negotiating with the Palestinians she is convinced that they have given up their claims on Haifa and Jaffa, but she acknowledges that a deal requires risks that are outweighed only by the risks of not making a deal. “Making peace will be painful,” she said. “It means not just giving up land; it means you take real security risks. It’s going to be bloody. We would face terror at first. We all want to live happily ever after in peace, but that won’t happen at first. It will take time between the agreement and real peace, and whoever makes it will be criticized as a traitor. And, if you decide to do nothing, you can just manage the situation.” The security fence, she said, provides the temporary illusion of “we are here and they are there.”
In the meantime, Israel’s hard-liners harden further. The Palestinians grow more frustrated. Talk of a binational state increases. All parties wait for the White House, but why would an American President think that he could present his own initiative and muster enough support on all sides to succeed? Why, he asks himself, should he spend the political capital? Courage is discouraged. And so this is the moment of Naftali Bennett. I’ve rarely seen a novice politician so confident, and with such reason. Each day, he is clibing in the polls, skimming off votes from the Likud and Netanyahu.
“I’m pissing him off enormously,” Bennett said, smiling. “But what matters is the day after.” Bennett knows that he is very unlikely to be Prime Minister—this time, anyway—but he hopes for a spot in the leadership. “The best analogy is that Bibi is the bus driver with two hands on the wheel,” Bennett said. “I want to put a third hand on the wheel.”