Naftali Bennett: An Ultra-nationalist Who Speaks Fluent Liberal

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Thanksgiving is a nice time of year to visit New England, but Israeli Minister Naftali Bennett and his team weren’t playing tourists in New York and Washington last week: they were in town to talk turkey.

The ultra-nationalist movement had a lot to be grateful for this year, making new friends in high places like the Hill, the Brookings Institution, the 92nd Street Y, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in addition to appearing on CNN and PBS during their week-long visit with their American “in-laws.”

However the group added a twist to the Thanksgiving fete in their honor by pushing back from the negotiating table on Iran and Palestinian statehood. Yet the just desserts of this hasbara tour was the coming of age of the public relations campaign of English-speaking, mostly Jewish-American settler activists who have revolutionized the movement by introducing new liberal, rights-based arguments justifying the settlement enterprise to the international community. In effect, they are trying to cement a love affair between the U.S. and the Israeli radical right with an ideology and rhetoric that is as American as apple pie.

In fact, the romance between the American and Israeli ultranationalist activists blossomed earlier this year, when New Yorker editor David Remnick penned a critical profile of Naftali Bennett which ironically helped make this then-obscure leader of Habayit Hayehudi party a household name in the U.S. and provided unprecedented exposure for his political philosophy. For many newly-minted believers, Bennett was the ideal spokesperson for Greater Israel, a messiah who wore Armani and spoke American (his parents were post-1967 immigrants from San Francisco). At very least, Bennett could be heralded as the second coming of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet, more importantly, Bennett is not only able ‘walk the walk’ for American audiences, he can ‘talk the talk’ of the international community.

It’s not just the recognizable pop culture Americanisms — like describing the Arab spring as a “whole different ballgame” on Charlie Rose, likening the strategic depth of Ra'anana to “living in the Beverly Hills of Israel five kilometers from the Green Line,” to the Brookings Institution (while recognizing that over the border of territorial Israel, “we’re not all singing kumbaya, OK?”), or lecturing Christiane Amanpour on the inaccurate parallel between President Hassan Rohani of Iran and Mikhail Gorbachev. Bennett’s PR is part of a larger strategy of using a new language of liberal ideas to justify, normalize, and promote the illiberal ultra-nationalist project outside Israel's borders

If the ultra-nationalist vision once had the country-bumpkin image of plaid-shirted Hanan Porat, meditating about the messianic redemption of the land and people in halting English, Bennett is keenly aware of the need to translate prophecy into public relations and scripture into soundbyte. When Bennett repeatedly referred to human rights (to live in the land), as well as the rights of self-determination and of self defense (against Palestinians), he consciously evoked tropes that would resonate with American audiences imbued with Wilsonian ideals, U.S. constitutional democracy, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Further, his discussion of civil disobedience and the use of a referendum to protest any future peace deal could be taken straight from Henry David Thoreau or Martin Luther King Jr. Last but not least, his theme of Israel as “lighthouse” nation resonates directly with the notion of a “city on a hill” and the moral responsibility of Zion - new or old - toward the international community. Clearly, Bennett understood the agenda behind his arguments, suggesting on CNN that “values messaging is sometimes better than practical messaging, [where] people are inspired by values and heritage. No one has been talking about our rights and that’s why Palestinians keep winning debates.”

But Bennett is only the lead orator of a new ultra-nationalist PR movement – largely driven by Jewish-American settlers since the 1990s. In fact, while Bennett was courting officials in Washington, Brooklyn-born David Ha-Ivri led a delegation from the Samaria Regional Council and the Shomron Liaison Office who were in New York City for a political spin workshop entitled “Israel Advocacy Conference: Addressing Core Issues and Improving Your Impact.” Alongside other groups like Americans for a Safe Israel, American Friends of the Likud, ZOA and Ha-Yovel (a Christian evangelical group), these settler leaders demonstrated the larger agenda of domesticating the rhetoric of the Israeli radical right into familiar, and Western-friendly terms.

As the U.S. continues to lead diplomatic efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today, it should recognize that the Israeli ultra-nationalist movement is trading on America's own values. For the Obama administration and American Jewish leadership to successfully re-engage in the region, they must first reclaim a seat at the rhetorical table. If the ultra-nationalist movement is presenting itself to be as American as apple pie, the only way to take a slice out of their arguments is by pointing out the cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy in applying liberal ideals and language to illiberal political programs.

If the U.S. hopes to prevail as an honest broker it must drive a wedge between the Bennettspeak that instrumentalizes American ideals and an authentic rights discourse that promotes a peaceful and just outcome to the conflict. For that, both Israelis and Palestinians could be thankful.

 Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at Oxford University. Her research, teaching and public engagement activities focus on the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the relationship between U.S. Jewry and Israel. She is writing a forthcoming book about American Jews and the Israeli settler movement since 1967. Follow her on Twitter @SaraHirschhorn1

Naftali Bennett, head of Habayit Hayehudi, speaks in Ashdod, Israel, Dec. 26, 2012.Credit: AP

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