Naftali Bennett knows how to work a crowd. Pacing up and down on stage, his shirt-sleeves rolled up, his voice fills the seafront hangar where hundreds of recently-arrived immigrants have come to hear him make his case. The 42-year-old is stocky, bald and has a toothy grin that makes him look younger. He has them rapt.
Bennett’s is the swaggering self-confidence of a man who set up a software firm and sold it for $145 million (€136 million) before turning to politics and becoming a star. His style owes everything to Silicon Valley. With his earnest, informal delivery (“you guys”, “Oh man”), his messianic zeal and relentless positivity, his policy platform could be a winning app being pitched to investors.
“I’m really proud to be part of this amazing nation. It’s a miracle,” he says towards the end of a question-and-answer session dominated by people’s concerns about the economy and Israel’s security. “We’re always so pessimistic about the cost of living, but did you ever ask yourselves, where were we 70 years ago or 700 years ago?
"We were in some shtetl [small towns] with no self-dignity in Poland or Morocco or Yemen, where we couldn't pray and we couldn't live. Now we have our own Jewish state. This is amazing. We've got our own Jewish problems. It's great." The crowd cheers.
to parents from San Francisco, Bennett spent many years in the US before selling his anti-fraud software company and moving home to make a career in politics. A former member of a special forces unit in the army and a one-time chief-of-staff to
, Bennett broke with his mentor in 2008 and, four years later, took over the far-right
He has broadened the party’s appeal, attracting younger, secular voters and, in the process, turned himself into a power broker on the Israeli right. More religious and more extreme than Netanyahu, Bennett has been helped by a rightward shift in Israeli politics.
This was partly driven by demographics: the religious and ultra-Orthodox, who lean right, have a high birth rate, while the arrival since the 1990s of almost a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are more likely to vote for right-wing parties, accelerated the trend.
A general pessimism about the prospect of a peace settlement with the Palestinians has also boosted the far-right, which has been hostile to a two-state solution. In its first election with Bennett as leader, Jewish Home increased its seat tally from three to 12. He is currently minister for the economy in a Netanyahu-led coalition.
On the economy, Bennett is a free-market, pro-business conservative. “By and large I’m very against the left-socialist approach. I think it would destroy Israel,” he tells the audience.
He boasts of having taken on the farming lobby, broken cartels and increased Israel's trade with China, India and Japan. "I believe we have to diversify Israel's commerce so we don't depend only on a certain continent, such as western Europe, where we're having considerable potential problems."
He speaks of having worked to increase the traditionally low representation of two groups – Arab women and Haredi men – in the Israeli workforce, insisting he wants “the Arabs to be part and parcel of Israeli society”. To many Israelis, however, Bennett is the presentable face of an extremist party whose core constituency is made up of hardline settlers and ultra-nationalists.
At the Tel Aviv event, groups of gay rights activists protest at the door, highlighting a series of homophobic remarks by a number of Bennett’s colleagues (one was quoted as saying he was “a proud homophobe”), and his speech is interrupted for 10 minutes after the activists hoist rainbow flags in silent protest.
“I respect you guys,” Bennett says as scuffles break out around the room between his supporters and the activists. “We’re a free country, and in a free country you have the right.” He says he supports giving same-sex couples “the full rights that derive from marriage” but not marriage itself.
But it’s Bennett’s stance on the Palestinians that puts him farthest beyond the mainstream. He is against “giving up one more centimetre of land to the Arabs”, he says to loud applause.
He cites the regional turmoil and Hamas rocket fire from Gaza as reasons why Israel must not repeat in the West Bank "the mistake" it made by pulling out of the Gaza strip in 2005. "For three days you get applause. But then on the fourth day you get missiles. And when you fight back against the missiles, you get international condemnation." Under Bennett's "stability plan", Israel should annex "Area C" of the West Bank (about 60 per cent of the total territory), where more than 350,000 Israeli settlers live under full Israeli military and civil control in settlements the international community regards as illegal.
The Palestinians have limited self-rule in the rest of the West Bank (Areas A and B). There, Bennett says, the Palestinians should have “autonomy on steroids”, with the power to collect taxes and run their own affairs. But it would not amount to a state: according to Bennett, the Palestinians should not be allowed have their own army or control entry into his proposed new entity.
"There's seven million descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948 in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt," he says. "If they can open up their gates, we're going to see a huge surge of Palestinians' great-grandchildren coming into Judea and Samaria (the biblical term for the West Bank) and ultimately pressuring us on the Green Line, holding signs that say: we want to go home to Haifa, Jaffa, Ashkelon.
“The world is not going to be very sympathetic to us. Very quickly the battle will be for Haifa, Tel Aviv and Ashkelon. So if we don’t hold tight now, that’s where we’ll end up in five years.”
Critics dismiss the idea as either daft or dangerous, arguing Israel would at a minimum be shunned and isolated by the world if it tried it. “It’s a vision we have to build gradually,” Bennett replies when an audience-member raises doubts about the plan. “I think we should do it incrementally.”
If, as opinion polls suggest, Jewish Home holds on to or increases its seat tally of 12 in next Tuesday’s election, Bennett will be a big winner whatever the coalition that emerges.
If he joins a right-wing government, he can expect a senior portfolio and his base may well grow at Netanyahu’s expense.
If Netanyahu overlooks him and opts instead for a unity government with the centre-left, Bennett can position himself as a leader of the opposition and even as a potential future replacement for his old mentor, Netanyahu.
Ruadhán Mac Cormaic reports from Netanya, a city that has seen an influx of French Jews