Israel's National Religious Party Has Lost Its Warmth

With one-third of votes counted, challenger Naftali Bennett holds healthy lead over Zevulun Orlev in the party's new incarnation, Habayit Hayehudi.

I have certain expectations of the National Religious Party that I don't have of Likud, Shas or Yisrael Beiteinu; leftists will always have a soft spot for the NRP. But Tuesday's primary for the leadership of the NRP's new incarnation, Habayit Hayehudi, showed that the warmhearted NRP politico of old is in danger of extinction. Threats, forged letters, accusations of meddling by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, floods of robocalls - and all to lead a party of three Knesset members.

The primary pitted the veteran MK Zevulun Orlev against newcomer Naftali Bennett, who swept in like a storm and had three times as many "Likes" on his Facebook page as his rival. Orlev's Facebook page featured an article by a supporter that urged people to vote "in favor of gray hacks." There was also a mysterious third candidate, Yehuda Cohen, who refused even to post his picture until the day before the primary.

As of press time last night, with results from about a third of the polling stations counted, Bennett was leading by a comfortable margin of 70 to 30 percent.

I began the day in Ra'anana, waiting for Bennett to arrive. "It's lucky I have his picture, so I'll know who to photograph," a photographer told me. As Bennett emerged from his car, dozens of children began chanting in unison: "Ooh, ah, mi zeh ba, rosh hamiflaga haba," ("ooh, ah, look who's come, the next head of the party" ).

"Something new is beginning now for the people of Israel," Bennett declaimed of the historic moment then occurring in Ra'anana, second only to the parting of the Red Sea. Then someone prompted the children, who once again erupted into spontaneous chants of "ooh, ah."

Bennett, a Ra'anana resident, cast his own vote there, and the photographers began fighting to get a picture of him in the act. One might have thought this was the U.S. presidential election.

"The NRP has an anachronistic image," Bennett's deputy, David Sagiel, told me. "Bennett wants to turn the party into a non-sectorial one - not just a warm home for religious people, but a party for secular people as well. Something that will be an alternative to Likud in another 20 years."

A woman came over and started screaming at him about the signs plastering her apartment building. He had no answer for her.

From Ra'anana, I went to Petah Tikva, where Orlev was due to vote. Orlev has a very different style. Even here, the field belonged to Bennett: He had five times as many signs up as Orlev did; all Orlev had was a small, deserted tent.

Orlev had time for a personal interview, and I told him about all the children shouting and chanting for Bennett. "We aren't competing for shouts; that's a reality-television style of politics," he said.

The interview was cut short when someone brought over a tray of pizza, but Orlev got only a small slice: The activists also had to be fed. "I haven't eaten in seven hours," he said. Later, I saw that a security guard also received a slice. A point in the party's favor.

Near the polling station, I asked a young man who would win. "Unfortunately, Bennett," he replied.