Naftali Bennett. Screenshot, English-language election advert

The current Israeli election season has been surprisingly eventful. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu jumpstarted the process by joining forces with ex-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s party. So far, it hasn’t worked. The kindest polls show the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu combo losing at least seven seats from what it has now. Say what?

Lieberman himself seemed to have dodged indictment, until his own deputy, Danny Ayalon, whom Lieberman had pushed out of the party, hinted that he might give the police more information about Lieberman’s misdeeds, leaving his ex-boss with too many legal problems to stay in government for now. Tzipi Livni made headlines by forming a new party, but isn’t gathering anything close to the support she expected, while Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich resolutely refused to rule out sitting in a government headed by Netanyahu until she flipped like a pancake and resolutely said she would never sit in a Bibigov.

However, the biggest story has been the rise of Naftali Bennett and the HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party. This party, which currently holds three seats in the Knesset, is rocketing into a central position in Israeli politics and current polls indicate it will end up with between 14 and 17 seats, making it the third biggest party in the next Knesset. Many observers believe that Bennett is assuming the mantle of the “Face of the New Right.” There’s good reason to believe this is correct.

The party itself is a recasting of the National Religious Party. Yet Bennett himself, though religious, is far from a fundamentalist fanatic. He wears a kippah, but it’s not a prominent feature for him. He’s a businessman who made his money designing software. And he speaks very much like a pragmatist, not someone primarily motivated by his faith. His opposition to a two-state solution is based on typical Israeli security fears and interests, not a religious imperative to hold on to the entirety of Greater Israel.

Bennett’s appeal is based in large part on his image as a non-political politician. He comes across as honest and sincere in his beliefs, a stark contrast to the cynical manner of Netanyahu, Livni and Yachimovich. And Bennett is the clearest example of how Israeli politics are disconnecting themselves from the US, European Union, Palestinian Authority, and the Arab League, who continue to try to resuscitate a dead and decaying Oslo peace process.

Bennett made his splash when he presented what he calls “The Israeli Stability Initiative.” Under this plan, Israel would annex the part of the West Bank designated Area C, which is under full Israeli control, and allow limited Palestinian autonomy in Areas A and B. Israel would have full security control in all of the West Bank, but it would also eliminate the system of checkpoints, ostensibly allowing Palestinians to travel freely in the West Bank. Bennett believes this, along with granting citizenship to the 50,000 Palestinians in Area C, will deflect the charge of an apartheid system of Israeli control.

It’s highly unlikely that he’s right about that, not least because the arrangement he envisions is certainly still apartheid, as all West Bank Palestinians will be under ultimate Israeli control, autonomy or not, without the same rights and privileges as Israeli citizens. But Bennett may well be right about Israel’s ability to annex Area C. He points out that Israel has already incorporated annexed land in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and, while the world doesn’t “accept it,” it has nonetheless been reality for decades. All he’s recommending is adding Area C to “the list.”

Bennett is also refreshingly honest when he explains why Israel cannot agree to a two-state plan. In a video breaking down his Stability Initiative, he explains his security and demography concerns and then points out that the aquifers in the West Bank account for “50% of Israel’s water supply.” Water has always been one of the issues that are listed as “to be discussed.” It has never been seriously considered in any of the formulations of a two-state solution. This is not an issue that can be minimized; Israel-Palestine is a water-poor area, as is all of the Middle East. Water cannot be taken for granted there as it can be in most of Europe and the United States.

 

 

Any viable Palestinian state that can even maintain a pretense of independence, would, by definition have to control its water supply. This means a severe reduction in the amount of water that would be available to Israel. Israelis may not use water quite as freely as most Americans, but they do use it considerably more freely than most people in the Arab world. Palestinians, by contrast, face severe rationing of the water supply, which is entirely controlled by Israel. The average Israeli consumes four times as much water per day than the average Palestinian, who consumes considerably less than the World Health Organization recommends.

Rather than ignore this reality, as Israeli leaders across the political spectrum have almost always done, Bennett is quite clear about it. He realizes that Israel has no intention of cutting its water supply in half. So do Netanyahu, Livni, Yachimovich, Lieberman, Yair Lapid, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and every other Israeli leader, past and present. The difference is that Bennett has no compunction about saying so.

The problems with Bennett’s plan are obvious. Palestinians living in the West Bank are no more likely to accept a situation of Israeli domination of their lives today than they have been for the past 45 years. Nor is an increase of Israeli refusal to address the refugee issue likely to encourage Palestinians in exile to simply accept their fate and integrate into their host countries, even if those host countries were suddenly eager to pursue such integration. Bennett’s plan to maintain and increase the Israel Defense Forces’ security responsibilities for all of the West Bank (implying that Israel would no longer subcontract such services out to the Palestinian Authority, or at least would diminish the PA security role) is a recipe for increased confrontation and conflict.

There are other issues, but ultimately, the problems with his plan are not the point. The point is that Bennett’s star is rising precisely because he is addressing the question of what is to be done now that the Oslo process has clearly failed. Bennett is offering Israel a vision of a better state of affairs. As he says, he doesn’t claim that his plan is a solution, but only that it is a significant improvement on the status quo.

Bennett envisions a future where Gaza is Egypt’s problem, where Israelis can continue to convince themselves that they are not practicing apartheid, where they can assuage their feelings about occupation by removing all checkpoints and permitting Palestinian travel throughout the West Bank, and where they get all of this without sacrificing key security concerns or half their water supply. Bennett also proposes measures to improve the Palestinians’ economic status, with the idea that this will help foster Palestinian acquiescence.

All of this comes together to create a post-two-state vision that can be sold in Israel. And, while this is certainly not going to be acceptable at the White House or in Europe, let alone in Arab capitals, it is likely that, given time, such a plan could get majority support in Congress and in enough influential spaces in other Western states that Israel could go forward with it.

Back in 1967, Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon proposed a partial annexation of the West Bank, with the rest being returned to Jordan. The plan was completely outside the political consensus of the day, both within Israel (which was far too drunk with victory to consider giving back any territory) and outside (where it was expected that Israel would withdraw from all the territories it captured in the war, with perhaps some change in the status of Jerusalem). But the plan never really went away; it morphed with the advent of new ideas and new political realities. In many ways, the route of the Separation Barrier, the borders Ehud Barak proposed to Yasir Arafat at Camp David, Bennett’s plan, and the various other maps that have been proposed over the years, are all the descendants of the Allon Plan.

However, where other proposed maps moved from the Allon Plan toward some semblance of a Palestinian state, Bennett’s changes direction and moves away from it. And, like Allon’s proposal, it may well live for a long time to change and mature as diplomacy and other circumstances shape it. This is the tragedy that progressives on this issue still refuse to grapple with: it is the right, not the left, which is bringing into the political arena the proposals for where to go out of the ashes of Oslo.

Whether the proposal is for one state, two states, three states or no states, until and unless the diplomatic and political arenas give up the idea that somehow the abject failure that is Oslo can somehow be revived, people like Naftali Bennett are going to be blazing the new trail. Leftists can fantasize about Israel being forced into accepting a solution to this conflict, but there is no reason to believe that this will ever happen. It would, in fact, be historically unprecedented for allies to use that level of coercion against one of their own. Centrists can hope Israel will listen to reason, but why would we believe this will happen now, when more moderate governments would not do so?

Without diplomatic alternatives, we are leaving it to Israel to decide where things go from here. As Israel tilts toward the right, it is particularly concerning when a leader like Bennett – one who is committed, apparently honest, charismatic and who is willing to take on the questions others are not – is the one charting the course.

Bennett is neither a blatant racist like Avigdor Lieberman, an elitist oligarch like Netanyahu, or a cynical politician like Tzipi Livni. He is a straightforward nationalist who puts his cards on the table with the tag line from his video presentation: “Doing what is good for Israel.” Whether one agrees with Bennett’s idea of what’s good for Israel or not, his implied intention to pursue Israeli interests without a care for what the rest of the world thinks is going to appeal to many Israelis.

That’s why Bennett and HaBayit HaYehudi are rising so fast. And it’s likely to continue, especially since Bennett, at least at this stage, looks a lot less vulnerable than Lieberman, or even leaders like Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert, who have had to overcome their share of scandals.

The rest of us have a choice: continue to cling to the failures of the past, or come up with our own superior visions of the future. Some have already done the latter, with various new proposals, mostly for bi-national or single, democratic states, but also with federated or updated two-state plans.

None of these visions are likely to be politicized in Israel, though. Nevertheless, they’ll need to find their way into political discourse somewhere – the US, Europe, the Palestinian Territories or the United Nations. Otherwise, the future will be ceded to the Naftali Bennetts of the world. It’s hard to imagine a fate worse than that. It is also, unfortunately, hard to imagine Bennett not succeeding, either.

 

Screenshot courtesy of HaBayit HaYehudi. All rights reserved.