When prodded by Nissim Mishal on the current affairs program Mishal Cham (Channel 2) as to his willingness to participate, as a soldier, in the evacuation of settlements, Naftali Bennett set off alarms by replying that he would ask for an exemption (which is the politician’s way of refusing an order). The Likud campaign hurried to lambaste Bennett, offering that his answer was irresponsible and altogether reprehensible.
Anyone who was shocked is either naïve or pretending to be. The elected leader of the Jewish Home party, which can accurately be described as the political organ of the settler movement, refuses to endorse the expulsion of his most powerful constituency from their homes! His comments are entirely in keeping with his role as leader of a political camp that supports settlement expansion and opposes a two state solution (advocating instead for the annexation of Area C, and the subsequent naturalization of what he estimates to be the 48,000 Palestinians that will be absorbed into the Israeli state. The United Nations estimate puts the number closer to 150,000).
Is this news? This wasn’t exactly Hassan Nasrallah campaigning for same-sex marriage. This was the leader of the most powerful extreme right-wing party in Israel reminding the media what the extreme right-wing in Israel is about.
It is Bennett’s willingness to speak with candor that is most staggering (or should be). Perhaps it is reflective of a greater truth in this country: the settler movement can no longer be reduced to living/breathing populations of political pawns. Perhaps those living in Eli, Har Bracha, or Karnei Shomron, don’t see their homes as military outposts disguised by playgrounds and red roofs, existing to serve “Israel Proper’s” interest by providing strategic depth. Maybe, this generation of settlers was taught that their homes are exactly what they look like: communities of purpose-driven Jews viscerally committed to an idea. And what is more so, maybe they actually believe it.
In the meantime, the Israeli electorate is projected to buy it as well. As a response to Likud’s alarmist video campaign, warning Israelis that Bennett is a renegade and an irresponsible choice for the Knesset, the Jewish Home party has experienced continued success. Currently projected to be the third largest party in the next Knesset, Bennett’s support isn’t limited to religious Zionists. Younger Israelis are seemingly responding to Bennett’s less-than nuanced message: “We are here, we have been here, it’s the way it was, it’s the way it will be, and as for the rest of the world? They will have to get used to it.”
This is the same message one might expect to hear a weathered rabbi share with a dedicated flock of young yeshiva students, holding arms and swaying responsively in a beat up caravan somewhere just outside Hebron. Except this time it’s being spoken in the halls of what is supposed to be rational dialogue – universities, community centers and the nation’s most popular news station. And this time, the speaker is a millionaire and hi-tech consultant..
Where Bennett’s message is at once grandiose and simple, Bibi’s equivocations seem to have exhausted our patience. Bibi managed to agree to a 10 month settlement freeze and promote the construction of housing units in the ever more contentious E1 territory, all in one candidacy. Bibi shattered the Likud political mold by endorsing a Palestinian state at Bar Ilan, ignored Abu Mazen for the better part of four years, and stood helplessly flabbergasted, if not deeply offended, that the UN General Assembly supported the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral bid for statehood.
We know what Bennett is about, so what is Bibi asking us to get behind? Is the Likud administration prepared to negotiate with the PA? Is it opposed to a two-state solution? Will it continue to support settlement expansion? Bennett’s Jewish Home party has proven a formidable opponent, compelling Netanyahu to assume a peculiar stance in defending himself from the right. Bibi needs to realize this opponent is driven and unapologetic. Perhaps it’s best he addresses his policy imperatives, rather than bringing our attention to something we all already know – Bennett is an extremist who rejects the premise of a two-state solution, his politics are born of uncompromising ideological belief, and he has the unusual audacity to say so.