30 December 2012
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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 tolerance.

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”?

Notwithstanding our 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 proclamations.

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.

The writer may be contacted at ileibler@leibler.com

This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom

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Isi Leibler

Isi Leibler is a veteran international Jewish leader with a distinguished record of contributions to the Jewish world and the cause of human rights, including the struggle for Soviet Jewry. He was head of the Jewish community in Australia for many years and made aliya in 1999. Leibler has held senior roles in the World Jewish Congress, including chairman of the governing board and senior vice president. Today, he writes prolifically and is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post and Yisrael Hayom.

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