Saturday, 12 January 2013

In Israel, religious nationalist party Jewish Home rises in polls

It was a mostly young crowd that turned out on a chilly winter night to hear Naftali Bennett, the leader of the religious nationalist party Jewish Home, who delivered an appeal for understanding — not between Israelis and Palestinians, but among Israelis themselves.

“If it’s important for you to return to Jewish values, to connect and break down barriers, then you have a home,” Bennett told the audience gathered in a neighborhood synagogue. “The minute we lower the level of hate, we can solve many problems.”

The appeal was tailored for a society where fierce debate often pits secular Israelis against ultra-Orthodox Jews, ideological settlers in the West Bank against liberals from places such as Tel Aviv, and the political right against the left.

But Bennett’s pitch was also unabashedly nationalist, and its popularity – demonstrated by his party’s strong showing in polls ahead of the Jan. 22 elections – reflects the rightward drift of the Israeli electorate. Both secular and religious voters have given Jewish Home a boost at the expense of the front-running rightist ticket led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

With efforts to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians at an impasse, many Israelis who have grown deeply skeptical of chances for an agreement are drawn to Bennett — a 40-year-old political newcomer who seems to offer clear answers to complicated questions.

While Netanyahu and other mainstream Israeli politicians say they accept a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, Bennett dismisses it as unrealistic. He argues that a Palestinian state would endanger Israel by becoming a base for militant attacks and a magnet for millions of returning refugees who could infiltrate Israel’s borders.

Instead, Bennett proposes what he calls a blueprint for managing the conflict: Annexing to Israel about 60 percent of the West Bank, known as “Area C,” where Israeli settlements are located and where Israel currently exercises full authority. Under the plan, Palestinians living in the annexed area would be granted Israeli citizenship, while those in other parts of the West Bank would have self-rule under an Israeli security umbrella.

“He’s shouting out a simple truth that we’ve forgotten: That the Land of Israel is ours,” said Ohad Azran, 27, a secular supporter who came to Bennett’s campaign gathering. “We don’t have to do what the world tells us but what we think is right. He’s saying what Zionism has always said.”

Critics of Bennett’s plan call it a recipe for a binational state that contradicts the principles that guided Israel’s founders, who accepted the partition of British-ruled Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.

“The right realizes that it has no solution. This is an illusion that confirms the existing situation and offers no alternative,” said Hagit Ofran of the anti-settlement group Peace Now, which has posted a rebuttal of a video outlining Bennett’s plan that is circulating on social media.

Yedidia Stern, who heads the project on religion and state at the Israel Democracy Institute, said Bennett’s electoral appeal is an example of how religious nationalists, estimated at only 12 percent of Israel’s population, “are setting the agenda and have become a central factor in all the big questions of peace, security, foreign policy and the country’s Jewish identity.”

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