The national religious bloc on the right-wing of Israeli politics has been an easily-dismissed minority voice in government in recent years. But new leadership appears to have revitalized the movement, and polls show the main national religious party will be the third largest faction in the next Knesset.
According to a poll conducted by the Dialogue survey company, the Jewish Home party will win 13 seats in the next Knesset, just behind the left-wing Labor Party with 17. A poll conducted two weeks ago gave Jewish Home as many as 16 seats. Jewish Home has only three seats in the current Knesset.
Both polls predicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party would take 35 seats when Israelis go to the polls next month.
Jewish Home is the new name of the former National Religious Party. Its surge in the polls is being largely attributed to newly-elected party leader Naftali Bennett.
Bennett is a 40-year-old hi-tech entrepreneur who previously worked as Netanyahu's bureau chief when the latter was head of the opposition in the 1990s.
Jewish Home and the National Religious Party before it have traditionally been focused on the politics of the land, and that will not change under Bennett. Following his victory, the new Jewish Home leader said that dividing the land of Israel is like "cutting a crumb in two," and Israel must resist all pressure to do so for the sake of a phony peace.
Instead, Bennett said in a graphical video presentation posted to the Internet, Israel should implement a policy of annexation and autonomy in regards to Judea and Samaria (the so-called "West Bank").
In the video, Bennett advocates official annexation of what is known as Area C, the 60 percent of the "West Bank" where all of the Jewish population lives. Areas A and B, which are currently under Palestinian Authority control, and which contain 96 percent of the local Arab population, would be granted autonomy, but not independence.
To make this work, Bennett calls for heavy investment in new infrastructure that would provide the autonomous Palestinian areas with greater freedom of movement.
Bennett argues that this is the only way to both give the Palestinians most of what they claim to want, while also safeguarding Israel's security.
Bennett says Israelis need to beware that Netanyahu will look to again forge a coalition with left-wing parties that will lead to his dismantling of Jewish settlements under international pressure.
Netanyahu's Likud tried to fight back by harping on a statement by Bennett that Israeli soldiers tasked with forcibly evacuating Jewish settlers should ask to be reassigned. Likud officials attacked Bennett for allegedly calling for sedition, but Bennett insisted he had done nothing of the sort.
Either way, the episode only served to strengthen Bennett and his party and to draw away even more support from Likud.
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