December 27, 2012 10:07:36 AM
RAANANA, Israel -- The charismatic new leader of Israel's Jewish religious right is siphoning a large chunk of votes from the prime minister's party, according to polls ahead of Jan. 22 elections, and if the trend continues, the high-tech millionaire and former commando could emerge as a powerful voice opposing Palestinian statehood.
Though Naftali Bennett, the 40-year-old son of American immigrants, is a classic religious hard-liner, comfortable in the settlements he champions, he has been able to draw on his military and entrepreneurial background to widen his appeal to secular circles as well. His sprawling, modern home in Raanana, an upscale suburb of Tel Aviv, is far from the barren hilltops of the West Bank settlers who form the backbone of his support.
Polls show his Jewish Home party becoming the third-largest in the upcoming parliament, behind Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc and the centrist Labor. As Bennett's party gains ground, it has been steadily eating into Netanyahu's still-formidable lead. Several of Netanyahu's recent moves, including a surge in settlement construction announcements, have been attributed to the "Bennett factor."
Philosophically, Bennett and his party would fit easily into a hardline government of the type Netanyahu is expected to put together, though the political newcomer and the Israeli leader -- his former boss and political mentor -- have a history of bad blood that deepened over this past week.
Bennett's campaign has enlivened an otherwise drab election season. The Jewish Home party currently has five seats in the 120-member parliament, but polls since Bennett took over the leadership show it could win up to 15 in the election. Bennett says his goal is to broaden the base of his party by appealing to centrist, secular voters alongside the traditional backing of settlers and their supporters.
His political message, however, doesn't sound centrist.
"My positions are very clear: I never hide the fact that I categorically oppose a Palestinian state inside our country," Bennett told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. In the terminology of religiously devout hard-liners, "our country" means not only Israel, but also the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which the Palestinians hopes to incorporate into a future state, with east Jerusalem as its capital.
Bennett takes pride in his straight-talking campaign and accuses other politicians -- including Netanyahu -- of being "ambiguous."