Israel's Right Turn

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Oded Balilty / AP for TIME

Right-wing newcomer Naftali Bennett has attracted Israeli voters with his talk of annexing much of the West Bank

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called last October for elections, it was from a position of confidence and strength. He had already served as Premier longer than all his predecessors except Israel's founder, David Ben-Gurion. His approval ratings were solid, and his efforts to draw the world's attention to Iran's nuclear program were wildly successful. Even so, to all but guarantee that he would return as Prime Minister, Netanyahu kicked off the campaign with an audacious bargain, merging his right-wing Likud party on the ballot with Yisrael Beiteinu, an even more right-wing party controlled by the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman. The move was planned as a twofer, to lock up the support of Lieberman's famously loyal voters while pivoting conspicuously in the direction Israeli society has been moving rapidly in recent years: to the right.

Turns out it's moving faster than Netanyahu thought. Less than a week before the balloting, he was still heavily favored to remain Prime Minister — as the leader of the largest party in a coalition government, as is the norm in Israeli politics — but that is about all that has gone as planned. The story of Israel's 2013 elections is not Netanyahu's glide path to victory in his embrace of Lieberman but the incumbent's bruising by a newly potent rightist force in Israeli politics. One band of energized right-wing activists took over Netanyahu's party in its primaries, bumping aside more centrist members like Benny Begin, son of Menachem, a former Prime Minister and Likud's founder. At the same time, a formerly obscure party championing West Bank settlers, Jewish Home, came alive behind a commando turned high-tech entrepreneur named Naftali Bennett, whose campaign activated a secret weapon: a generation of young Israeli Jews who are markedly more conservative and nationalistic than their parents. "If all voters were under 30, we'd be the largest party in Israel," says Bennett.

Jewish Home, like Bennett, seemed to come out of nowhere, marketing a "Something New Is Beginning" campaign with a technological sophistication that even rivals speak of with admiration. An Israeli news app on your iPhone is likely to open to an image of Bennett. "Naftali Bennett is a brother," the campaign ad says, using a term of respect from one soldier to another. The result: Jewish Home is in third place in every poll but one, and in that survey it is tied for second with the Labor Party.

Bennett is in the enviable position of having an impressive CV but a short political career, which gives him the sheen of newness for voters. He was an officer in the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal, then made a fortune with a software start-up. Only then did he enter politics. After two years as Netanyahu's chief of staff when Bibi led the opposition, Bennett ran the main settler lobby. In each position, he says, he served as a bridge between the right-wing Orthodox community and Israel's secular population. Which, he says, are slowly converging. "There's sort of a big undercurrent for the past, I would say, 15 years in this society of returning to the basic Jewish and Zionist values, but it's not manifested itself yet, until these elections, in the politics," Bennett tells TIME.

Because of what that means for the prospects of a peace deal with the Palestinians, the result could be a watershed election even if voters return Netanyahu to power. Polls have long showed Israelis growing more skeptical of a negotiated peace in the almost 10 years since the brutal second intifadeh ended, and Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip produced not a Palestinian renaissance but waves of rocket fire. This, however, is the first campaign to make the sentiment plain. Of the five largest parties, only one, the Movement party of former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, harks back to reviving the moribund negotiations that much of the world still sees as the only way to bring peace to the region. Center-left parties prefer to thump domestic issues, while in the ascendant right wing the conversation has emphatically moved on from discussions of a deal with the Palestinians.

The primary goal of the surging right now appears to be not making peace with the Palestinians but rather figuring out how best to annex the West Bank. One Likud candidate suggests paying Palestinians $500,000 per family to leave their homes and the West Bank entirely. Jewish Home's proposal, laid out in a Facebook video, calls for Israel's annexing most of the West Bank and leaving the remaining 40% — urban areas — to the Palestinians. Such ideas are not likely to be implemented anytime soon. But their serious discussion in the campaign surprised a political class that had grown comfortable with the status quo and with the double-talk that analysts say has made the ongoing stasis palatable to Western powers: lip service to the importance of talks while Israel continues to build settlements.

"We are, at this point, passive," says Efraim Inbar, who runs the Bar-Ilan University think tank where, in 2009, the recently elected Netanyahu announced he was casting aside his career-long opposition to a Palestinian state. "Let's manage the conflict and tell the world, 'Yes, we are in favor of the two-state solution.' That's what they want to hear. That's what Bibi is doing."

In Washington, where the policy of every Administration since that of George H.W. Bush has been to sponsor or push for peace talks in the hope that the two sides will reach a deal, faith in negotiations lingers even if polls show Israelis are losing interest in compromise. "There's no doubt you have a generation of young people who don't remember any handshakes on the White House lawn, of [slain Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin's legacy, of a sense of possibility," says David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "This is an Israeli public, a younger public, that has maybe been persuaded by Netanyahu that basically Israel is living through a hurricane when it comes to the Arab Spring, and in a hurricane you can only hunker down in a cellar. America's rejoinder seems to be 'That may be true, but if it's a permanent hurricane, can you live in a cellar?'"

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