Naftali Bennett: The David Duke of Israel
His ominous rise signals a coming crisis in US-Israeli relations
Naftali Bennett is the rising star of Israeli politics, and his party, Jewish Home, is projected to be the third largest in Israel: he is also an upfront racist who has made the presence of Africans in the country a major campaign issue, calling for their immediate expulsion. He’s said he would refuse orders to evacuate Jewish "settlers" from Palestinian lands, and he has a plan to annex most of the West Bank. "Forget whether it’s right or wrong," he says. "We’re here to stay, now what can we do about it? To strive for perfection brings disaster again and again. It’s time for new thinking."
However, there is nothing new in this sort of thinking: ever since a right-wing nutjob assassinated Yitzhak Rabin and the "settler" movement began openly battling the IDF, the world has been aware of a dangerous and quite unpleasant streak of extremism taking root in the land of Israel. The Jewish Home party, and its charismatic leader, are but the latest incarnation of an increasingly militant religious fundamentalism with deep roots in the history of the Zionist idea. At the core of this ideology is the concept of "Greater Israel," which includes the Palestinian lands known by observant Zionists as "Judea and Samaria." The fundamentalist strain represented by Bennett derives the borders of this expanded Jewish state from the Old Testament, which promises all these lands to the Israelites unto eternity.
As to how this radical expansion would alter the Jewish character of the Israeli state, that’s a question Bennett prefers not to answer: "What do we do in the long term? I don’t know."
But of course he does know: he just prefers not to say, out loud, that a future Greater Israel will expel all the "Israeli" Arabs, just like his coalition partners in the former Molodet party have long advocated. His Jewish Home party absorbed the Molodet faction of the extremist "National Union" – which openly advocated ethnic cleansing – at its founding in 2008, and his followers know just what he means.
Bennett is, in short, an extremist on the order of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose hatred of Arabs (and African refugees) is being cleverly marketed to a younger crowd, and whose foreign policy views make Netanyahu look like a left-winger. Bennett knows Netanyahu well: he served as Bibi’s chief of staff when the Likud leader was in opposition, and the two will no doubt be reunited after the upcoming elections in a new government, where Bennett will probably be in the cabinet as Housing Minister.
Born in Haifa to American parents who emigrated from San Francisco after the Six Day War, Bennett founded a hi-tech company in New York, where he lived for four years, making millions and then taking off for Israel, where he reinvented himself as an ultra-nationalist political activist. After his stint with Netanyahu, he joined the settler movement – although he prefers to live in a wealthy suburb of Tel Aviv – as head of the Yesha Council, and later joined the National Religious Party after a bitter falling out with Netanyahu over the settlements. He managed to take over the NRP in a primary election, and now seeks to revamp this crucible of ultra-Orthodox obscurantism, rebranding it as "young" and "modern," with a special outreach to American immigrants.
Friends of Israel among American liberals aren’t fooled. As Jeffrey Goldberg put it:
"The Jewish Home party advances an ideology that will bring about the destruction (the self-destruction) of Israel. The Jewish Home party seeks to erase the dividing line between Israel and the West Bank; it seeks to build more and more settlements; it seeks to absorb the West Bank’s Arabs into Israel as, at the most, second-class citizens. It seeks to empower Orthodox religious nationalism as the dominant ideology of the state
turn Israel into the Jewish equivalent of a sharia state. And its policies would turn Israel into a pariah state, and Israel will not survive for the long-term as a pariah state."
Sadly, it doesn’t look like Goldberg’s views have any influence in Israel, where he once served in the IDF. Instead, the Israeli electorate is moving with frightening speed to the ultra-nationalist right. This trend lifted up a former bouncer and outright fascist, Avigdor Lieberman, to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and made it necessary for Netanyahu to court the ultras and then merge his Likud party with Lieberman’s Yisrael Benteinu outfit.
I’ve been warning about the rise of Israel’s Taliban for years, but back then nobody was listening. That well-known friends of Israel on the order of Jeffrey Goldberg are now waking up to the threat (not, I might add, due to my puny efforts) is heartening – but perhaps too late to do any good. The Jewish state is headed down a path that will lead to its own destruction, and it is going at top speed. This will inevitably bring it into collision with American policymakers – who, by the way, are just as responsible as Israel’s rightist demagogues for this appalling state of affairs. As I wrote back in 2002:
"The Israeli Taliban could easily be reined in, and nipped in the bud by US policymakers – but for the exertions of Likud’s American supporters. Ensconced in both parties – allied with the Christian Right and the New Republic liberals – uncritical supporters of Israel dominate the national discourse on the Middle East. Wrapped in a protective shield, and subsidized to the tune of $3 billion a year by US taxpayers, the worst elements in Israeli society are coming to the fore, and pose a direct danger not only to US interests, but to the whole region."
We are subsidizing not only the "settlements," which sit on stolen land and make a two-state solution increasingly impossible, but we are also paying for the Israeli equivalent of the Taliban’s madrassas, where Jewish fundamentalists receive religious instruction (and are exempt from military service). These schools, which are breeding grounds for right-wing extremism, receive direct subsidies from the Israel government: without billions in US taxpayer dollars, these outfits would soon be out of business.
The slick effort to market Bennett as the "fresh" face of religious and political extremism is no more convincing to most American observers than was David Duke‘s "makeover," which catapulted him to temporary success in Louisiana politics, some years ago: in the Israeli context, however, Bennett’s makeover of a party of dangerous fanatics is succeeding all too well. Polls show Bennett’s party will gain as many as 15 seats in the upcoming elections, making it the third largest in the Knesset. The youthful demagogue will no doubt join Bibi’s cabinet, filling the void left by Avigdor Lieberman, whose legal troubles have brought him down.
It isn’t just that Bennett’s revamped version of Kahanism is entering the Israeli mainstream – it’s that his support for openly racist policies (no Africans!) and ultra-nationalist rhetoric is the mainstream, these days. Netanyahu, for his part, is moving with the tide – because only a statesman would swim against the stream, and Israel’s Prime Minister is very far from that.
America’s "special relationship" with Israel is based on shared values: that is the core of the alliance that has succored and strengthened the Jewish state, often at the expense of its neighbors and its Arab helots, over many years. When Americans come to realize that these values of democracy, equality, and liberty are frayed to the breaking point on the Israeli side, that’s when Israel will lose the public support which is so vital to the Jewish state’s continued survival. Given the continued upward trajectory of Bennett and his party, that day is not far.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Still no word on the nomination of Chuck Hagel to head up the Pentagon, and so – as of this writing – the smear campaign is still in full swing. As is the spirited defense of Hagel, which has been launched by a coalition of liberals, conservative "realists," and libertarian anti-interventionists. The White House petition in support of Hagel, as of this very moment (Thursday, at ten in the morning), stands at 2,038 signatures. Many thanks to those who have signed. Please, if you haven’t already, go here to defeat the neocon smear campaign and affix your signature to this important effort.
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