Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Can Naftali Bennet lead Religious Zionists?

Last updated September 20, 2014

This morning’s (September 17, 2014) line-up of blog essays on the Arutz Sheva Zion's Corner Blogs represents a concrete demonstration of the importance bloggers can play in Israel’s political discourse. Listed at the same time on the Blog’s front page were two essays about Naftali Bennet and Religious Zionism: David Rubin’s “Can Religious Zionists Lead Israel?”, and my own essay, “Does Naftali Bennet have a fatal flaw?”

Each essay presented a different view of Bennet and the Religious Zionist imprimatur he carries. If my reading of his essay is correct, Mr Rubin feels that Bennet can be a successful Religious Zionist leader, representing the complete Religious Zionist ‘package’. I am not so certain.

Naftali Bennet is a proper focus for a serious discussion because he is not a marginal player. He doesn’t stand alone somewhere in the shadows of the political sideline. By virtue of his 12 Knesset seats (out of 120 total seats), his Party is the fourth largest in the Knesset (and tied for third largest in the ruling coalition). Those twelve seats mean he is the leader of the Religious Zionist movement in Israel. True, in Israel’s political system, being fourth  in the Knesset and third in the coalition doesn’t get you very far; but it’s better than most of his peers—and it gives him a ‘bully pulpit’ from which to spread his message.

He can legitimately claim to be the voice for what some term Israel’s ‘Modern Orthodox’ Jews who combine the secular world with the religious, and who strongly support Israel as a 'Biblical entity’ (for lack of a better term).

I think that David Rubin believes that Bennet can be an effective and ideologically-consistent leader for the Religious Zionist—if he (Bennnet) follows a certain course. First, Rubin states that “In all of the recent debate, there has been little convincing evidence presented to buttress the charge that enabling greater inclusion will lead to the abandonment of Religious Zionist values.” He might be right.  

But there is still an ‘Israel experience’ to deal with. That experience suggests that, once a politician starts down the road of ‘greater inclusion’, his original core values disappear. Netanyahu is the best example of this. Like Bennet, Netanyahu started his career as pro-Israel (Right-leaning). He joined a Likud whose Party platform called Judea-Samaria ancestral Jewish homeland—and not subject to surrender. Today, however, he appears to put Judea-Samaria on the chopping block. He doesn’t support Jewish building in Jerusalem. He doesn’t help Jews populate Judea-Samaria.

Netanyahu has a broad base. One might be able to argue that, the wider his base got, the more his putative core values eroded.

Naftali Bennet served as Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff when Netanyahu had lost his seat as PM, was in the Knesset---and eager to win the PM’s seat again. Bennet has learned well from a master. Will his movement for ‘greater inclusion’ mean he will take a path similar to Netanyahu’s?

I think the odds are that Bennet will take that path. If he does, he will no longer represent Religious Zionists. He will have betrayed them.

On one level, David Rubin is correct. Bennet has the potential to lead Religious Zionists. But look closely at Mr Rubin’s essay: he believes Bennet can lead Religious Zionists only under certain conditions, conditions which Bennet may not be interested in. For Rubin,  Bennet can remain true to his core Religious Zionist values if the larger voter base Bennet attracts will be made up of “those who want to see a more traditional and more Zionistic Israel, even if their personal observance is less traditional”; and if (2) Bennet can lead his Party the way Shas did—Shas  expanded its base without eroding core values; and if (3) as a strongly Zionistic party, Bennet can actually do a better job than Shas at inclusion-without-erosion.  

That’s a lot of if’s.

These may be ‘if’s’ that Bennet won’t be able to follow.

Mr Rubin states, correctly, I think, that being fourth in the Knesset—or even second (as those new polls (above) suggest)—doesn’t wash in Israel because, like it or not, it is the Prime Minister who determines the direction of national policy on issues such as building policies in Judea, Samaria and eastern Jerusalem (ibid). Israel’s current policies aren’t likely to change as long as the Netanyahu-led Likud and the left-of-center Yesh Atid are overwhelmingly the two largest parties (ibid). Therefore, Rubin argues, Religious Zionists can see improvements in strengthening national-religious education, protecting the complete Land of Israel enterprise, and asserting Jewish sovereignty over Israel only when a Religious Zionist sits in the PM’s seat (ibid).

Rubin feels that Bennet is that Religious Zionist if the current Party platform remains the same and if Bennet continues to seek Rabbinic guidance.  

I don’t disagree with David Rubin’s theory. I don’t disagree with his conditional ‘ifs’.

I just don’t think Bennet can meet those conditions. I think he’ll  ‘do a Netanyahu’.

What do you think?



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