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Who will Bennett be?

The Jewish Home party leader's statements on dismantling settlements indicate he has chosen the path of extremism

Every election has its moments when a comment or a step taken by a candidate resonates exponentially and becomes a major topic of discussion and debate which often affects the results of a campaign. So far, it looks like Naftali Bennett’s response last Thursday night to a question by TV journalist Nissim Mish’al about whether he would carry out an order to dismantle a Jewish settlement is going to be one of those moments. Bennett’s response that he would refuse to do so, made incredible political waves and naturally drew harsh criticism from both right-wing and left wing-parties and for obvious reasons. In a country in which such a scenario is reality rather than fantasy or conjecture, and the removal of Jewish settlers is such a painful and emotional issue, it was only natural that a response by the leader of a mainstream Zionist political party who served as an officer in an elite combat unit, who ostensibly supports seiruv pekuda (refusal to carry out orders) would arouse vociferous opposition.

Bennett’s subsequent efforts to put a more acceptable spin on his answer only made things worse. His explanation that he is adamantly opposed to refusing to carry our orders, but that in the case posed to him he would ask to be relieved of his duties on a personal basis, clearly shows that he has not yet internalized his new position as the leader of a political party likely to join the governing coalition, which would make him a shoo-in to serve as a minister. What might, in other words, be acceptable for Major Naftali, would be out of the question for Minister Bennett. Of course a good deal of the righteous indignation that greeted these comments has to do with the election campaign and the meteoric and unexpected rise in the support for Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which primarily appears to be at the expense of the Likud, but also has hurt other parties.

Bennett has chosen his direction (photo credit:  Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Bennett has chosen his direction (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Just as the commotion appeared to be receding, along comes Moshe Feiglin, who is slated to be elected to the Knesset on the Likud Beiteinu list and pours more oil on the flames. According to Ynet, Feiglin on Tuesday related to Bennett’s original comment in the following manner: “A state which sanctifies freedom as a value must respectfully allow conscientious objection. If we do not do so, we all have to go to the sea and ask forgiveness from Eichmann [whose ashes were scattered in the Meditteranean after his body was cremated] for executing him.” Anyone who has followed Feiglin’s political career will not be shocked by such statements, nor by Feiglin’s views, which are far more suitable for the extreme right-wing Otzma le-Yisrael party than the Likud led by Netanyahu who not so long ago spoke of two states for two peoples in his Bar-Ilan address. And while it is true that the current Likud slate undoubtedly overwhelmingly opposes that scenario, no one else is about to compare the IDF men and women who dismantled Gush Katif with the likes of Eichmann, and rightfully so.

The important question therefore is not what is Feiglin’s latest provocation, but rather what does Naftali Bennett really think? Is he a fundamentalist/true believer for whom no territorial concessions can ever be made under any circumstances and any uprooting of Jewish settlers will evoke a call for mass insubordination? Or are his campaign pronouncements about preventing Netanyahu from reaching an agreement with the Palestinians (which would obviously have to include concessions) merely right-wing demagoguery that will yield to the realities that prompted numerous right-wing politicians to change their positions on such questions once they assumed governmental responsibilities? Bennett’s predecessors in the National-Religious Party initially rode the wave of post-1967 messianic enthusiasm to electoral gains, but in later years when the question of Eretz Yisrael became the focal point of the party’s raison d’etre, the NRP split in two and faded into irrelevancy.

As the person who united the different factions, Bennett will ultimately have to decide which path to take, one which elevates the struggle for the Land of Israel above all other issues along with a much more extreme stance on religious issues, or a more moderate stance which will emphasize the questions of Jewish identity and education with a more open, tolerant approach to secular society and respect for the rule of law. If his statements on dismantling settlements and following orders are any indication, it appears that he has already made his decision.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not represent those of the Simon Wiesenthal Center

About the Author
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center's Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.