Naftali Bennett and mystical Jewish nationalism: Part II

Naftali Bennett: The triumph of mystical Jewish nationalism: Part II
7 min read
21 Jun, 2021
Opinion: Having successfully unified the extreme right and the secular Jews, Prime Minister Bennett is the result of more than half a century of rising religious soft power in Jewish Israeli society, writes Sylvain Cypel.
Under the new coalition government Bennett will serve as Israel's prime minister until 2023 [Getty]

This is Part II. Read Part I here.

The bombardment of Qana

Mobilised in 1990, Bennett took the elite military path followed by the most prominent members of Gush Emunim: after serving in the prestigious Israeli army unit, Sayeret Matkal ("the special reconnaissance unit"), he became a commander in the specialised dangerous operations unit Maglan. 

On 18 April 1996, during a large-scale Israeli offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bennett's unit came under mortar fire. According to various Israeli journalists, Bennett raged against the cautious approach of his superiors before disobeying their directives to order the bombardment of the village of Qana. 

The village housed a UN building in which many people were taking refuge. The bodies of 102 civilians and four members of the UN peacekeeping forces were later found under the rubble. The "Qana Massacre" made headlines worldwide. A UN investigation concluded that the deaths were the result of "deliberate Israeli bombardments." This was rejected by the Israeli government.

Lebanese girls participate in a vigil held in front of the headquarters of the United Nations Economic and Social Development for West Asia (ESCWA) in Beirut, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the "Qana massacre" on 18 April, 2006. [Getty]
Lebanese girls participate in a vigil held in front of the headquarters of the United Nations Economic and Social Development for West Asia (ESCWA) in Beirut, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the "Qana Massacre" on 18 April, 2006. [Getty]

In 2018, David Zonshein, a former Maglan captain who had served under Bennett in 1996, became president of the board of B'Tselem and testified to Bennett's responsibility for the events at Qana, accusing him of "bearing significant responsibility for the moral breakdown" occurring in Israel. A key feature of this moral breakdown for Zonshein was Israel's attitude to the Palestinians.

After honing his skills through his six-year military career, Bennett went on to make himself rich in spectacular fashion. In 1999, he joined with associates to create two logistical start-ups in the field of cybersecurity, Cyota and Soluto. He sold them to American investors in 2009 and 2013 for a total estimated sum of over $250m. He was then able to turn his attention to his long-term ambition of a career in politics. In a short time, he became Benjamin Netanyahu's chief of staff (2006-2008).

In 2010 Bennett became the director of Yasha, an umbrella body representing the interests of Israeli colonists in the occupied territories. On 20 December 2011, he gave an interview to TV personality Nissim Mishal.

"After honing his skills through his six-year military career, Bennett went on to make himself rich in spectacular fashion"

"You're a high-ranking officer," said Mishal. "If you received an order to evacuate a settlement [in the occupied territories], what would you do?" 

Bennett replied, "My conscience would not allow me to obey. I would ask my superior to excuse me. I wouldn't call on other soldiers to follow me, but personally, I couldn't do it." In replying so, Bennett adopted a factional stance; one he knew many Israelis would perceive as an expression of integrity.

Uniting colonialist movements

While Bennett adhered to the beliefs of the most extreme faction of the religious colonialist movement, he dissociated himself from its historical political strategy, to make religious Zionism the autonomous avant-garde of those advocating Jewish state sovereignty over the entire territory of Israel. 

He did not consider it necessary for the two constituent parts of the radical colonialist movement, the religious and the secular, to be united. The Israeli "secular" colonialist extreme right, he believed, shared his attraction to a Barrèsian mystical ethnic nationalism, a project rooted in the cult of "the land."

In 2013, Bennett created The Jewish Home, a political party that would unite these two factions. His number two was a non-practising Jew called Ayelet Shaked. The more Bennett presented himself as controlled, the more Shaked appeared as a caricature of the vengeful extreme right. She described herself as "fascist" in campaign materials and said that her priority was the preservation of the Jewish character of the state, even if that meant not granting equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel. Bennet agreed with her but generally expressed himself less bluntly.

"In Bennett's mind, the conflict is intractable and there is no point in seeking a political solution"

By pursuing the unification of the extreme right and the secular Jews, Bennett contributed to fracturing the colonial religious movement into numerous small groups but succeeded in using his own group as the launchpad that would propel him to the top of government.

Naftali Bennett is not just a relatively young, homespun politician. He also represents several fundamental principles:

The first is that the land of Israel is a gift from God ("it has been ours for 3800 years") and is not divisible.

The second is that in the state of Israel, a Palestinian citizen cannot expect the same rights as a Jewish citizen. 

The third is that "the two-state solution" is not a solution. As Bennett has explained bluntly, "If the Palestinians could press a button and make us disappear, they would, and vice versa."

In Bennett's mind, the conflict is intractable and there is no point in seeking a political solution. "The secret is peace from the bottom up," Bennett said in 2014. The only option is for Israel to impose its will while rewarding those Palestinians prepared to toe the line with gradual, conditional improvements to their daily lives; a sort of condensing of the colonial spirit. 

While waiting for the Palestinians to resign themselves to this state of affairs, all forms of "terrorism" must be combatted. These include, for Bennett, all vague wishes for, tendencies towards, or expressions of Palestine independence (he was one of the promoters of the Israeli law that bans the use of the term "Nakba" in schoolbooks).

Voices

As far as the end of the story is concerned, Bennett has offered several scenarios, each intended to be more reassuring than the last. In a 2014 article in The New York Times, he predicted that the Palestinians would eventually have access to 35 percent to 40 percent of the territory of the West Bank (he didn't mention that this would be fragmented and would not include East Jerusalem). They would benefit from a form of non-state autonomy, "it will be an entity beneath the state", in which governors would manage everyday affairs while Israel maintained control over sovereign issues, something akin to what used to be called a Bantustan. 

A "plan" concocted by Bennett in February 2012, called the "Initiative for the stability of Israel", involved immediately annexing Zone C of the West Bank, 63 percent of its total area (to be added to the 8 percent already formally annexed by Israel in East Jerusalem and its environs). He said that Israeli citizenship would be offered to some of the Palestinians living in Zone C. The figure he gave varied, but, in August 2018, it was 75,000 people, approximately 20 percent of the population. The other 80 percent could, if they wanted to, become Jordanian citizens. If they didn't want to, they would remain without rights.

As for Gaza, Bennett's idea was to ask Egypt to manage the issue. He said, in 2016, that the remaining 60-70 percent of the West Bank should be annexed as soon as possible. 

"We must act decisively to impose our dream. And that dream is that Judea and Samaria will be part of the sovereign state of Israel." He said, in August 2018, that by an unspecified future date all of the West Bank would be annexed.

"Bennett imposed by decree a prohibition on educational establishments welcoming representatives from Israeli organisations critical of the Palestinian occupation"

An advocate of muscular 'democracy'

Bennett is not only an enthusiastic supporter of the law of the nation-state of the Jewish people, one of Israel's "fundamental" constitutional laws, which for the first time establishes a legal difference between Jewish citizens and others (95 percent of which are Palestinians), but also an advocate of muscular 'democracy'.

When he was Minister of Education (2015-2019), he imposed by decree a prohibition on educational establishments welcoming representatives from Israeli organisations critical of the Palestinian occupation. The first was Breaking the Silence, an NGO that brings together former military personnel to reveal the realities of the occupation.

Prime Minister Bennett is the result of more than half a century of rising religious soft power in Jewish Israeli society. This movement has brought previously marginal mystical notions to the forefront of Zionism. A militant avant-garde at its outset, the now-defunct Bloc of Faith influences myriad movements and political parties. Its heirs are part of Likud and of the ultra-orthodox religious circles that emerged originally from anti-Zionism. They are in Yamina, Bennett's own party, and in the new religious Zionist party that welcomes the Kahanists, the Jewish supremacists who recently conducted night raids against Palestinians in Jerusalem. 

The Bloc of Faith has become the informal party of faith. Now, for the first time, and in spite of its internal wrangling, one of its own has attained the political summit.

 

This is Part II. Read Part I here.

Sylvain Cypel has been a chief editor of Le Monde and editorial director of Courier International. He is the author of the books Les emmurés. La société israélienne dans l'impasse (La Découverte, 2006) and L'État d'Israël contre les Juifs (La Découverte, 2020).

This article was originally published by our partners at OrientXXI.

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