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The Victory of Israel's Far-right Religious Zionism

Carolina Landsmann
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Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, left, speaks to Labour party leader Merav Michaeli, Knesset, June 2021.
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, left, speaks to Labour party leader Merav Michaeli, Knesset, June 2021.Credit: Ronen Zvulun,AP
Carolina Landsmann

Following the political drama is like watching “Homeland”: The agents spend so much time undercover they no longer know who they are. With so many leftists disguising themselves as rightists, and rightists as centrists, it’s unclear who is representing whom. Naftali Bennett will be prime minister, the left is opening the Champagne and right-wingers are threatening to kill him. What’s going on?

It’s a good thing we have the foreign media to clue us in. As HuffPost, for example, explained, Israel’s government is moving further rightward. After two opposing parties reached an agreement to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they are putting Naftali Bennett, an “ultranationalist” from the “far right,” in his place, it said.

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It’s impossible to explain the process by which as stemming only from either a random, apolitical combination of circumstances or just by the common metapolitical goal – putting an end to Netanyahu’s reign – that has driven the country mad.

Last week, Bennett concluded a six-year operation behind the lines of the left-wing Tel Aviv enemy. A video he posted in late 2014, during the campaign for the primary of Habayit Hayehudi, his party at the time, showed him strolling through central Tel Aviv in hipster costume and mocking leftists. At the end, he removes the costume, resuming his usual look as a kippah-wearing settler and declares, “As of today, we’ve stopped apologizing. Join Habayit Hayehudi.”

This week, it turned out that the hapless Naftali was just another disguise donned by the former chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements as part of his undercover political operation. His voter registration campaign succeeded. In a moment he will sit in the prime minister’s chair, remove the mask, resume his position as leader of the settlers, face the camera and declared, “The Prime Minister’s Office is in our hands.”

It’s impossible to ignore the feeling that the members of the change coalition feel at home with each other. This week, a picture made the rounds of Ayelet Shaked (Yamina) huddling with Tamar Zandberg (Meretz). True sisters. Was the seeming political tension between them all these years actually because they were so similar?

I couldn’t help remembering the – how much flak Zandberg, then Meretz’s new chairwoman, took in 2018 for having hired a political strategist who was behind several inflammatory anti-left campaigns. In hindsight, we must admit that Zandberg was the visionary of the change coalition.

I recall thinking at the time that she pulled the rug out from under the left’s rhetoric of “fascism” and “benighted regimes,” because her decision to work with Klughaft proved she wasn’t afraid of what and whom he represented, and that in reality, it’s all business. I thought she had thereby legitimized the far right, but that this wasn’t necessarily bad. Rather, it was an opportunity for change. Perhaps when the left acknowledges that “the distance separating us from the right is less dramatic, and the Jewish common denominator larger, than we’re comfortable admitting, it will be possible to start thinking about Israel’s real problems,” I wrote at the time.

The Haredi columnist Israel Cohen responded with an essay titled – you won’t believe this – “Behind every Klughaft stands Bennett.” Klughaft, Cohen argued, “worked to implement a very specific ideology which holds that the right must learn to rule, and to do so, it must rudely bite its rival,” as if to say that Zandberg did not hire Klughaft, but rather fell into his ideological trap. Cohen also pointed out the reversal that had taken place: Whereas right-wing politicians once impersonated leftists, today, he said, leftists are disguising themselves as right-wingers.

He warned against letting Klughaft’s ideology take over and closed with a gloomy prophecy that’s chilling to read in light of the latest news: “His victory may well herald something else that seemed impossible until not long ago – at this rate, even Bennett could become prime minister.”

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