Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Does Naftali Bennet have a fatal flaw?

If Naftali Bennet has a fatal flaw it’s that he’s becoming too much like every other Israeli politician. He may be too interested in winning at any cost. He may chase his dream using the wrong paradigm.

Winning at any cost is, on one level, what politics is all about: you do what it takes to win. In Israel, that means you try to attract the widest possible base. For any politician, this is Politics 101. What’s wrong with that?

It’s wrong because in Israel, most politicians seek a wider voter base by surrendering their core values. They think that’s how they will attract more votes.

They do that because Israel is small. Its voting public is not homogeneous. No one voting sector dominates the political landscape.

They do it also because it’s easy. Because they crave power, they crave votes. To attract votes, most Israeli politicians don’t build from the ground up. They don’t tell their ‘story’ consistently over time until their following grows.

That takes too much time. Most politicians aren’t patient. They want instant gratification.

There’s only one way to gain that instant gratification: you follow the polls. You change according to what the polls tell you (“'Bennett Ready to Abandon Values to be Prime Minister'”, Arutz Sheva, September 12, 2014).  

Naftali Bennet got elected to the Knesset on a ‘modernized’ Religious Zionist platform. He created his Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party by taking over what some have called a waning National Religious Party (NRP) (“Can Bennett shake Israel's national-religious old guard into a modern new party?”, Haaretz, September 10, 2014). The NRP was close to 100 per cent ‘Religious’ in its outlook (ibid). But it didn’t attract many votes. Bennet got those votes--and got elected.

He was an attractive candidate. He said the ‘right things’. He appeared to make Religious Zionism powerful.

Nine months before the January, 2013 elections, few had heard of him. The day after the election, he headed a Party that stood third in power in the Knesset.

That’s how politics works in Israel: in an instant, he was a star.

Now, like many Israeli politicians who experience such a splash onto Israel’s political stage, he wants to be Prime Minister. He appears to believe that he cannot do that with a Religious Zionist platform. That platform looks too narrow (“Bennet Ready…”, above)

He’s not alone. Many believe that Bennet can’t be a Religious Zionist and also become Prime Minister: a purely Religious Zionist won’t get that many votes. Therefore, conventional wisdom suggests, Bennet must choose what’s more important to him, his core values or becoming PM.

He appears ready to change his core beliefs in order to become Prime Minister. He sees a new poll showing him gaining strength. The poll suggests he could be the second largest Party in the Knesset (“Poll: Jewish Home Second After Likud “, Arutz Sheva, September 15, 2014). Does he smell success?  

His core values stand in his way. As a Religious Zionist, he should believe that Israel—including Judea-Samaria—is a Divine gift to the Jewish people. He should believe that Jerusalem—all of Jerusalem—is Jewish.

A Religious Zionist stands up for G-d. A Religious Zionist doesn’t willingly surrender G-d’s gift (our land) to our enemies.

That’s the message he should be bringing to the Israeli public. His problem is, when Religious Zionists represent a minority of voters, how can he become Prime Minister with that message?

He has an answer to that question: he will pursue his dream by down-playing his Religious Zionism to chase after seculars, Russian-speakers and Druze (“Jewish Home Passes New Constitution - With a Twist”, Arutz Sheva, September 10, 2014).

That’s wrong. He’s trying to address the challenge of getting elected Prime Minister using the wrong paradigm. His problem isn’t a ‘voter sector’ problem. It’s a communication problem.

If he’s going to attract voters, he must not change his voice. He has to make that voice more attractive. He’s got to define his message and then sell it. He has to convince voters to say ‘yes’ to the message.

If he changes his core values now he’ll be just like everyone else. Sharon did it. Netanyahu has done it. Even Menachem Begin did it.

The problem is, voters don’t seem to trust politicians who do that. They’re tired of politicians who ‘win at any cost’.

If Bennet chases his dream by compromising his values, he’ll become just another opportunity-chaser. Compromising core values for politics pleases no one. It’ll make him the kind of politician his many potential supporters will reject. He will ingratiate himself to no one. He will offend many.

That’s the price you pay when you start out as a Religious Zionist: voters will reject you when you reject your own core values.

Will that be Bennet’s fatal flaw?



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