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Backing the Settlers
The most striking evidence of the campaign's rightward turn is the competition among the parties to support settlements, the Jewish towns whose presence already bars Palestinians from more than 40% of the West Bank. In November and December, Netanyahu's government announced plans for more homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank than had been approved in the previous nine years, according to data compiled by Peace Now, a left-wing activist group. The moves, which brought outcries from Europe and Washington, prompted no great dissent in the campaign.
Yair Lapid, a former anchorman, entered politics hoping to rouse the majority of Israelis who consider themselves nonreligious and who historically decide elections. But even Lapid aligned himself with the settlers, many of whom are religious, by unveiling some of the platform of his new Yesh Atid party at an event in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. Talk to the Palestinians, Lapid says, but don't expect much. And don't give up Ariel. "I told the BBC, 'Yeah, right, why didn't you give back Ireland 100 years ago?'"
Lapid has carved up Israel's center-left vote with two other parties Livni's Movement party and Labor, the major party that has been historically associated with the peace process. No more. Its new head, Shelly Yachimovich, also a former journalist, has reached out to settlers and talks almost entirely about economic justice. "Because people believe there's not any hope at this moment, they live in denial and prefer to concentrate on their economic, private lives," explains Isaac Herzog, Labor's No. 2. "We were identified with the Palestinian peace narrative forever and kept losing."
Bennett describes Israel's steady move rightward as a natural progression. For almost the entire 2,000 years they were scattered across the globe, he notes, most Jews were religious. The late 19th century Zionist movement that produced Israel was a secular, existential mission to create a haven for Jews, who were being persecuted in Europe, especially in Russia. "It was all about a safe shelter, and certainly after the Holocaust it became more relevant," Bennett says. "But now we're 64 years old, and the notion of our raison d'être being a safe shelter is not sufficient. Israel is not the safest place in the world for Jews. Melbourne, Australia, is safer. Teaneck, N.J., is safer. We won't be here to stay if it's only about shelter. What we're doing is going back to the sources and moving from existential or security-based Zionism to Jewish-based Zionism."
It helps Bennett, who is 40, that almost two-thirds of Jewish Israelis ages 15 to 24 called themselves right-wing in a 2010 survey. Numerous polls show young Jews are less inclined to grant equal rights to Arab citizens, less likely to support a negotiated peace and more inclined to prefer "a strong leader" over democratic values.
"We're becoming Sparta," says Tamir Leon, an Israeli anthropologist who visits schools routinely. "People go into the army. We ask them, 'Why do you go?' Forty years ago, they said, 'To serve my country.' Twenty years ago, they talked about self-fulfillment. The focus was on himself. Now they say, 'I want to kill Arabs.' I ask hundreds of them. Hundreds."
Bennett's December surge caught Netanyahu's campaign flat-footed. Israeli elections are tallied in Knesset seats control of 61 of the 120 available is needed to form a government and in one monthlong stretch, polls showed the conjoined Likud-Beiteinu bloc was losing a seat a week to Jewish Home. The hemorrhaging got worse when Netanyahu attacked Bennett for saying in an interview that as a military reservist, he could not obey in good conscience an order to evict settlers from their homes should the army be called in to dismantle settlements as part of a peace deal. Swing voters found Bennett's agonizing more attractive than Netanyahu's attack.
Danny Danon, a Likud parliamentarian regarded as vehemently pro-settler, shakes his head. "I'm a leftist compared to these people," he says. He spoke to Time in Petah Tikva, an electoral battlefield city in central Israel where a high school had just hosted a candidates' debate and mock elections. In the courtyard, a 10th-grader had plastered her body with stickers for both Bennett and Netanyahu. "I'm Naftali and Bibi. I love the right," says Jordan Zecharia, 16. "I'm looking for a party that will take care of the "
"Arabs," says her friend Gal Hachmon. "The security issues need to be finished."
Netanyahu's slate prevailed in the mock elections, though perhaps not by the margin he's seeking in the real elections. Bibi wants to win big: "Strong Prime Minister, strong Israel" is his slogan. But the incumbent's campaign, knocked back a few paces when Lieberman was indicted Dec. 30 on fraud charges, was having a tough week. Danon had been with Netan-yahu in northern Israel the day before, when the Prime Minister bristled at people repeating the conventional wisdom that he is a lock. "Stop saying it," Danon said in frustration after the event, "because if you keep saying it," people will stray to other parties. "God forbid. It happened in 1996." That was the year that then Prime Minister Shimon Peres called elections, fully expecting to return to power, only to be blindsided by a challenger from the right. No polls suggest that Bennett could do that this year, but surveys do show an unusually high number of undecided voters. And the risk of underestimating the pace of Israel's drift to the right should not be lost on the young conservative who prevailed almost 17 years ago. His name: Benjamin Netanyahu.
with reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv