Naftali Bennett: The Zionist pin-up blazing a trail ahead of Israeli poll

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With the most hotly contested general election in years on the horizon, the rhetoric has become increasingly fiery. And blazing a bigger trail than all his rivals is the software tycoon-turned-Zionist pin-up

When Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted his annual meeting with the foreign press a couple of weeks ago he was in buoyant mood. At one point he feigned not to hear a question from a reporter who quoted a recent poll suggesting that 81 per cent of Israelis expected Bibi, as he is universally known, to remain in office after the general election in three weeks' time. A broad smile broke out across his face when the journalist was forced to repeat the 81 per cent figure.

But that was then. In the words of The Jerusalem Post, Bibi's Likud Party and its coalition partner, the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, are now "in free fall". According to its latest poll, the two combined are set to win just 34 seats in the next Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Back in August, before the two parties agreed to combine their lists (Israeli voters back parties who publish a list of candidates) the two would have gained 46 of the 120 seats up for grabs in the chamber, enough to force through legislation with the help of a few marginal parties.

Now the situation is different. Observers put the fall in support down to a number of factors, not least to the indictment and resignation three weeks ago of Yisrael Beiteinu's firebrand leader, Avigdor Lieberman, who has stepped down as Israel's Foreign Minister to fight charges of fraud and breach of trust.

Mr Lieberman, who lives on a settlement in the West Bank, has his supporters on the Israeli right and, if he stands on 22 January is likely to take a significant job in the new cabinet. It is rumoured he is eyeing the Defence Ministry, a key post as Israel considers whether to retaliate against Iran for its nuclear programme.

But the election campaign has also been remarkable for the rise of the right-wing party Bayit Yehudi, or Jewish Home, and its charismatic young leader Naftali Bennett. According to a poll for Israel Radio, Bennett's party could take 15 seats, just one less than the current Labour opposition. With the momentum behind him it could well end up being more.

Israeli society has undergone a shift to the right in recent years and Labour has suffered as a result. Bibi's popularity stems from his stance on security issues, the brief war with Hamas in Gaza in November, his tough talking on Iran – and also the impressive performance of the Israeli economy.

Bayit Yehudi, a religious Zionist party (meaning that its policies combine Zionism and Jewish religious faith), also takes an uncompromisingly tough stance on West Bank settlements, which it backs wholesale.

"We're talking about political expression of sociological change in Israeli society," Yedidia Stern, a law professor and vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan research group, recently told The New York Times. "Whatever issue you raise that is a major issue for the state of Israel, the national-religious community has a view that is basically driving the discourse. Bennett is representing it in politics."

Mr Bennett, 40, has never held elected office and has virtually no chance of being Israel's next prime minister. But his party has shaken up the campaign to such an extent that Bibi has gone on the offensive against Mr Bennett, particularly his new rival's comments that, as a reservist in the Israeli Defence Force, orders to clear settlements would be too "too much to tolerate" for him.

Mr Netanyahu hit back after Mr Bennett told an interviewer last week that he would prefer to go to jail than to obey an order to evict Jewish settlers from their homes under a peace deal, as happened when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Bibi summoned all three Israeli TV stations for interviews, saying anyone who preached insubordination in the military would not be welcome in his next government. Mr Netanyahu's camp then followed up with a campaign depicting Mr Bennett as irresponsible.

"My positions are very clear: I never hide the fact that I categorically oppose a Palestinian state inside our country," Mr Bennett told the Associated Press in a recent interview, and his rhetoric on settlements has clearly struck a chord with some in Likud. Today, Likud officials proposed policies that would give Israel greater control over the West Bank, aimed at attracting back those right-wingers swayed by Mr Bennett.

On the right of the party, Moshe Feiglin, who lives in a West Bank settlement, suggested Palestinian families be offered money to leave Palestinian-controlled areas. "We can give every family in Judea and Samaria [the biblical term for the West Bank] $500,000 [£307,000] to encourage them to emigrate," he said.

Ze'ev Elkin, the chairman of the governing coalition, said "We will try to apply sovereignty over as much as we can at any given moment", adding that Israel should adopt a "salami" approach to gaining control over parts of the West Bank.

The Prime Minister and the young pretender have a long and complicated history and have sparred on several occasions during the campaign, so much so that members of Likud point to the party's falling support as evidence the attacks have become too forthright.

"Naftali Bennett has become the benchmark for the right," says Uri Dromi, an Israeli government spokesman under the Rabin and Peres administrations of the 1990s. "Many Israelis subscribe to his ideology and like the fact that he is an Israeli success story– people like success stories."

Mr Bennett's rise is certainly remarkable. Born in Haifa to American-Israeli parents, he joined the Israeli Defence Force, serving in its elite units before founding a software company, Cyota, which he sold to the US security firm RSA for about $145m. Mr Bennett entered politics in 2006, serving as Bibi's chief of staff for two years after fighting in the Lebanon war.

By 2010, he had decoupled himself from Bibi so much so that he led the campaign against his former boss's policy of settlement freezes in the West Bank, a doomed endeavour since reversed that was designed to entice the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table. Earlier this year, he resigned from Likud, joined Bayit Yehudi and announced his intention to lead the party, securing about two-thirds of the vote in the subsequent leadership election.

Despite his rise to prominence in recent weeks, and his ever-improving poll figures, there are those in Israel who fear his inclusion in any government following the vote. "Bibi will certainly come out as Prime Minister after the election, but the big question remains – which way will he turn?" says Mr Dromi. "He can either embrace the likes of Naftali Bennett, or form a government that embraces some on the centre-left. That would be both daring, and surprising, but also welcome. Despite what the polls are saying, on election day Israelis tend to move more to the centre rather than support radical parties."

That could be good news for the struggling Labour Party and also for the one-time foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who recently established the Hatnuah Party, or the Movement.

Hatnuah has tried to take the initiative on the left, and Ms Livni has not ruled out joining a grand coalition led by Mr Netanyahu. After the election, "it is possible that if Netanyahu stays in the driver's seat, we would work to direct the vehicle to a better place, from within the government," she said.

Polls suggest that Hatnuah will secure between nine and 11 Knesset seats. The remainder of the ballot paper will contain candidates from Israel's once great Labour Party and a clutch of smaller parties, including the influential ultra-orthodox Shas Party. All could be asked to join a coalition to tip Bibi to the magic 61-seat mark after 22 January.

What direction Israel will take in the coming year – with all it entails for the peace process, Iran and the wider region – will soon become clear. But the only thing that seems certain right now is that Mr Netanyahu will have another broad smile on his face once the votes are counted.

Election who's who

Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel's Prime Minister and leader of the Likud party, Mr Netanyahu is almost certainly going to remain in office after the 22 January elections. A canny political operator, Bibi, as he is widely known, was the first Israeli prime minister to be born in the country.

Avigdor Lieberman

The bête noir of Israeli politics, Soviet-born Lieberman is the leader of right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu. He resigned as foreign minister in mid-December to face criminal charges, but intends to stand in the election. If he does, and he faces down the criminal allegations, he is expected to secure a top cabinet post.

Shelly Yachimovich

The chairman of the Labor party, Ms Yachimovich is a former broadcast journalist who was expelled from school as a 15 year old for hanging up banners to protest at the headmaster's style of leadership. Her Labor party is currently second in the polls, but coming under pressure from the Jewish Home party.

Tzipi Livni

Ms Livni's then party, Kadima, came top of the polls in the 2009 general election, but handed power to Mr Netanyahu after failing to secure a coalition. Now the leader of the centrist Hatnuah party, Ms Livni has suggested she could join the governing coalition, despite a history of clashes with Mr Netanyahu.

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