As Israeli voters prepare for elections on Jan. 22, they have been wooed in increasing numbers by right-wing politicians who support the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Naftali Bennett, a former commando and high-tech entrepreneur, leads the party that best encapsulates this swing to the right—the Jewish Home party. The growing popularity of Jewish Home has taken some by surprise—not least Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, when he called for the early election in October, did so from a position of strength.
TIME’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief, Karl Vick, wrote this week’s magazine story (available to subscribers here) on the burgeoning strength of pro-settlement parties in the run up to Israel’s national elections. TIME spoke with Vick to get the story behind the story.
What sparked the rightward shift in Israeli society and politics, and why is that shift stronger among young people?
People say the turning point was 2006. That was the year Hamas took over Gaza and began sending out missiles. It was also around the time of the Second Lebanon war. The lessons seemed to be, if you leave a land you formerly occupied, it becomes a launching pad. So therefore, what’s the incentive to leave the West Bank, which is very close to the heart of Israel? Around March 2003 there was a lethal attack inside Israel every day of the month. That was just shattering to this society—especially to their faith and hope in a resolution. So that is what the searing memory has been for young Israelis, this is what they have grown up in.
Naftali Bennett has emerged as the face of this rightward shift—what’s the story behind Bennett’s move from Netanyahu’s chief of staff to being his opponent in this race? Do you see similarities between him and Netanyahu?
Bennett doesn’t talk about why he doesn’t talk with Bibi anymore. The accepted truth is that he ran afoul of his wife Sara, who is supposedly the power behind the throne. I’d only been in Israel a month or two when I had an interview with Bennett. He was at the time the executive director of the settler council. I spent a day going around to the settlements, and he was really personable and direct. I would always make a point afterwards to go and see him when he gave a talk. As a reporter, I liked his candor, even in the Israeli context and settler context—he was direct. He is articulate, and has an interesting background in this commando unit. When he was showing me around the settlements I never really got the feeling that he was this religious idealist, he never really brought up religious testaments and so on, just military reasons why holding the settlements was important. I had to ask him outright how religious he was—he insisted he was very religious. This is quite different from Netanyahu.
One of the reasons I pressed Bennett on that question is because of religious nationalists, which is how many settlers are identified within Israel. They believe the West Bank belongs to Israel, keep kosher and openly say they want to take control of Israel. You could say they are the most determined people in Israel. This is a different line, one that Bennett is following, from which Netanyahu has come from.
Why has the religious Zionism movement become so relevant now?
In the Israeli context, things are very quiet here now in terms of security issues. It is more a question of whether it pays to engage in the question of what to do about the Palestinians. If Bibi says there is a hurricane out there, then you have to hunker down. It’s the feeling that no one outside Israel understands, that they have to watch out for themselves. Civic teachers now complain about how there is a stigma attached to values identified as left-wing such as equality and so on. It’s also the case that the national religious group, the settlers, because of the indifference of much of the remainder of Israeli society, tends to wield a disproportionate influence. They are an incredibly motivated group.
As Netanyahu has only recently approved a large number of new settlements, why is Bennett’s party, Jewish Home, taking ground from him?
I was just on the phone with the Yesha council—the Jewish settlement lobby—and they’re skeptical that he will actually build these homes. There is talk, and then there is actually establishing these homes and moving people in. Netanyahu is kind of seen as unsteady on this area, there’s a feeling that he sways too close to the center of politics and influence from the U.S. for the taste of these groups.
How important has the economy been in the election campaign, given the high cost of living and the recently published unexpectedly high budget deficit figures?
Not nearly as important as you’d think, in a country where not 18 months ago half a million people were marching in the name of economic justice. The conventional wisdom is security issues trump all in Israeli elections. But this one has featured no overarching issue from either realm. The news has been the prominence of the rightist challenge to Bibi.
What happens if Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its ally Israel-Beiteinu do not win a majority? Would they form an alliance with Jewish Home?
This is the great question in this election. Israeli elections come in two parts: people vote for the parties, and then there is the actual formation of the government, usually led by the party with the most votes. Netanyahu’s alliance of his Likud Party and the even more right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu will most likely be the largest. However they’re not likely to gain a majority, so who are the other parties in the ruling coalition going to be? The last three or four years, there has been a pretty right-wing coalition. Last time around Labor was the only outlier, and it left coalition when Ehud Barak split away to form his own party. Bennett will certainly be a natural partner to Netanyahu’s coalition. He isn’t even running for Prime Minister he says, he’s running to keep Bibi honest. We’ll find out what happens in the week after the elections.
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