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Monday, December 31, 2012
Habait Hayehudi – Religious Zionism at the Crossroads
As a lifelong religious Zionist,
I was saddened observing the ongoing collapse of the movement which had
made a unique and valuable contribution to the welfare of the nation,
upholding enlightened Jewish values, striving for unity and promoting
So when the national religious
Habait Hayehudi was resurrected and polls predicted it may become the
third-largest party in the Knesset, should I not enthusiastically greet
such a phenomenon?
The answer is yes, but…
It is an incredible tribute to
the leadership qualities of charismatic 40-year-old Naftali Bennett that
he assumed control of a moribund Habait Hayehudi and infused it
overnight with a new lease of life. Bennett graduated from the elite IDF
Sayeret Matkal commando unit and in his early thirties sold his
start-up company for $145 million. He subsequently became bureau chief
of staff to Prime Minister Netanyahu, resigning two years later after
falling out with him and then assuming leadership of the settler’s
council (Yesha) until he was elected head of Habait Hayehudi.
With a slate including many
young newcomers, he launched an extraordinary campaign which, according
to a recent poll, skyrocketed the party to possibly gaining 15 seats –
an incredible achievement. The bulk of his supporters are under forty
and many are nonobservant.
In a recent television
interview, Bennett remarked that as a soldier he would not obey orders
to evacuate settlers from their homes. Netanyahu pounced on this and he
qualified his initial statement. But the extraordinary exposure he
achieved only strengthened his support.
Even non-observant Israelis
would welcome a strong Zionist religious party which would pressure the
government to appoint Zionist rabbis to state religious
instrumentalities and review conversion, marriage and divorce and other
areas which have been under the excessively stringent and inflexible
control of the ultra-orthodox (haredim).
The party will also demand that
haredi schools introduce a secular core curriculum to provide skills to
their students enabling them to join the workforce and cease subsidizing
those who refuse to earn a livelihood. Habait Hayehudi will also
receive enthusiastic support for endorsing efforts to oblige haredim to
ultimately undergo military or national service.
On the positive side, it will
also seek to promote Jewish values in a non-coercive manner, demand
greater Jewish content in the secular school system and ease tensions
between religious and secular Israelis.
So what are the negatives?
Religious Zionists do not
necessarily adhere to the hard right wing of the Israeli political
mainstream. Whilst sharing a passionate love for Eretz Yisrael, they
were traditionally renowned for being moderate and centrist. However, in
1967 many adopted a “messianic” approach to retaining the Land of
Israel, leading to criticism that their excessive concentration on the
“land”, resulted in neglecting the “soul” of the people – Jewish
education and Jewish identity.
Admittedly, today, many
religious Zionists reside in settlements and comprise a substantial
proportion of what would be described as the political far right.
Yet, the increasing number of
MKs wearing knitted kipot present throughout most of the political
mainstream, especially within the moderate national camp, demonstrate
that many religious Zionists do not support the far right.
In recent years, as Israelis
became increasingly aware of the intransigence and duplicity of the
Palestinians which made a mockery of attempts at peace negotiations, the
nation has dramatically moved politically towards the national camp.
Yet, numerous Israelis
supporting the center-right position were concerned that the Likud
primaries resulted in the election of more candidates from the extreme
right, whilst those considered more liberal were rejected. These
concerns were exacerbated when Likud consummated an electoral unity
ticket with Yisrael Beiteinu which will undoubtedly further strengthen
the right wing.
Habait Hayehudi policies will
intensify this trend. One of Bennett’s main criticisms of Netanyahu is
that he is too “soft”. He will demand that the government act tougher
towards the Palestinians. It is true that there were occasions when
Netanyahu could have responded more harshly to provocations. However, by
calling on the government to repudiate the two state policy and
immediately annex Area C, Habait Hayehudi represents the other extreme.
Such views are of course
legitimate and Bennett has the gift of expressing himself far more
eloquently than any other hard rightwing spokesman. But politics is the
art of the possible. Today, virtually all Israelis recognize that with
the current Palestinian leadership which would never provide the minimum
security safeguards we require and with Hamas breathing down our necks,
it would be insane to endorse a Palestinian state. But Israelis are
also opposed to absorbing and ruling over millions of Palestinians. Thus
a formal repudiation of a two state policy or the annexation of
territories would be opposed by most Israelis. It would also cause us
incalculable global damage and more importantly, probably terminate our
relationship with the United States.
Some right wing radicals refer
contemptuously to our alliance with the U.S., with whom we share common
values and democratic traditions. There is irresponsible chatter about
displaying “strength” and “going it alone”. Would Naftali Bennett tell
the U.S., “This is our business. Please butt out”?
extraordinary capabilities, it is primitive naiveté to dismiss, the
crucial importance of the support of a superpower to ensure our
technological military superiority in a speedily-changing environment.
For example, we lacked the financial resources to have independently
manufactured an Iron Dome.
In the absence of US diplomatic
support, the Islamic Conference nations and their rogue state allies
could impose sanctions and effectively choke us, with most European
countries spectating - at best.
And beyond the US, to whom do critics suggest we turn? To Russia? To China?
It is therefore imperative to
retain the support of the American people and Congress. But that does
not oblige us to become a vassal of the United States. There will
undoubtedly be matters of national importance that will require us to
resist pressure and stand firm. The current issue concerning housing
construction to create territorial contiguity between Jerusalem and
Maale Adumim is an example. But we should act with greater practical
vigor and employ more subtle tactics, avoiding needlessly provocative
We must develop long-term
strategies and minimize tensions with Western countries on issues that
are not crucial to our security. Our ability to achieve this balance may
heavily influence the outcome of the Iranian nuclear peril - Israel’s
greatest existential threat since its creation.
My hope is that after the
elections Netanyahu will create a broad national government in which
Habait Hayehudi will become be an important and responsible partner.
However if Habait Hayehudi makes
inordinate political demands or behaves in a demagogic manner in order
to attract extremist voters, it will be sidelined as yet another
ineffective extreme right wing opposition group. In the course of time,
like other transitory parties, its support will evaporate.
It would also lose an historic
opportunity to displace Shas and the haredi parties as the custodians of
religion and ensure that the government strengthens religious Zionist
institutions, guaranteeing the retention of Jewish values. In lieu of
being regarded as an extreme right wing party, it should concentrate on
becoming an influential national religious force, having a major impact
on the future of the nation and the Jewish people.