Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Religious Zionism at the crossroads

Religious Zionism at the crossroads

Isi Leibler

As a lifelong religious Zionist, I was saddened to observe the ongoing collapse of a movement which made a unique and valuable contribution to the welfare of the nation, upheld enlightened Jewish values, strove for unity and promoted tolerance.

So when the national religious Habayit Hayehudi was resurrected and polls predicted it may become the third-largest party in the Knesset, should I not enthusiastically greet such a phenomenon?

The answer is yes, but …

It is an incredible tribute to the leadership qualities of charismatic 40-year-old Naftali Bennett that he assumed control of a moribund Habayit Hayehudi and infused it overnight with a new lease on life. Bennett graduated from the elite IDF Sayeret Matkal [General Staff Reconnaissance] commando unit and in his early thirties sold his start-up company for $145 million. He subsequently became Prime Minister Netanyahu's bureau chief of staff, resigning two years later after falling out with him and then assuming leadership of the Yesha Council, the umbrella body of the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip, until he was elected head of Habayit Hayehudi.

With a slate including many young newcomers, he launched an extraordinary campaign that, according to a recent poll, skyrocketed the party to possibly gaining 15 seats — an incredible achievement. The bulk of his supporters are under forty and many are nonobservant.

In a recent television interview, Bennett remarked that as a soldier, he would not obey orders to evacuate settlers from their homes. Netanyahu pounced on this and Bennett qualified his initial statement. But the extraordinary exposure he achieved only strengthened his support.

Even non observant Israelis would welcome a strong Zionist religious party that would pressure the government to appoint Zionist rabbis to state religious instrumentalities and review conversion, marriage and divorce and other areas that have been under the excessively stringent and inflexible control of the ultra-Orthodox.

The party will also demand that haredi schools introduce a secular core curriculum to provide skills to their students enabling them to join the workforce and cease subsidizing those who refuse to earn a livelihood. Habayit Hayehudi will also receive enthusiastic support for endorsing efforts to oblige haredim to ultimately undergo military or national service.

On the positive side, it will also seek to promote Jewish values in a non coercive manner, demand greater Jewish content in the secular school system and ease tensions between religious and secular Israelis.

So what are the negatives?

Religious Zionists do not necessarily adhere to the hard Right of the Israeli political mainstream. While sharing a passionate love for the Land of Israel, they were traditionally renowned for being moderate and centrist. However, in 1967 many adopted a messianic approach to retaining the Land of Israel, leading to criticism that their excessive concentration on the land resulted in neglecting the "soul" of the people — Jewish education and Jewish identity.

Admittedly, today, many religious Zionists reside in settlements and comprise a substantial proportion of what would be described as the political Far Right.

Yet, the increasing number of MKs wearing knitted kippot present throughout most of the political mainstream, especially within the moderate national camp, demonstrate that many religious Zionists do not support the far Right.

In recent years, as Israelis have become increasingly aware of the intransigence and duplicity of the Palestinians which made a mockery of attempts at peace negotiations, the nation has dramatically moved politically toward the national camp.

Yet numerous Israelis supporting the Center-Right position were concerned that the Likud primaries resulted in the election of more candidates from the extreme Right, while those considered more liberal were rejected. These concerns were exacerbated when Likud consummated an electoral unity ticket with Yisrael Beytenu which will undoubtedly further strengthen the Right.

Habayit Hayehudi policies will intensify this trend. One of Bennett’s main criticisms of Netanyahu is that he is too "soft."

He will demand that the government act tougher toward the Palestinians. It is true that there were occasions when Netanyahu could have responded more harshly to provocations. However, by calling on the government to repudiate the two-state policy and immediately annex Area C, Habayit Hayehudi represents the other extreme.

Such views are of course legitimate and Bennett has the gift of expressing himself far more eloquently than any other hard Right spokesman. But politics is the art of the possible. Today, virtually all Israelis recognize that with the current Palestinian leadership, which would never provide the minimum security safeguards we require, and with Hamas breathing down our necks, it would be insane to endorse a Palestinian state. But Israelis are also opposed to absorbing and ruling over millions of Palestinians. Thus, a formal repudiation of a two-state policy or the annexation of territories would be opposed by most Israelis. It would also cause us incalculable global damage and more importantly, probably terminate our relationship with the United States.

Some right-wing radicals refer contemptuously to our alliance with the U.S., with whom we share common values and democratic traditions. There is irresponsible chatter about displaying “strength” and “going it alone.” Would Bennett tell the U.S., “This is our business. Please butt out”?

Notwithstanding our extraordinary capabilities, it is primitive naiveté to dismiss the crucial importance of the support of a superpower to ensure our technological military superiority in a speedily changing environment. For example, we lacked the financial resources to have independently manufactured the Iron Dome.

In the absence of U.S. diplomatic support, the Islamic Conference nations and their rogue state allies could impose sanctions and effectively choke us, with most European countries spectating — at best.

And beyond the U.S., to whom do critics suggest we turn? To Russia? To China?

It is therefore imperative to retain the support of the American people and Congress. But that does not oblige us to become a vassal of the United States. There will undoubtedly be matters of national importance that will require us to resist pressure and stand firm. The current issue concerning housing construction to create territorial contiguity between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim is an example. But we should act with greater practical vigor and employ more subtle tactics, avoiding needlessly provocative proclamations.

We must develop long-term strategies and minimize tensions with Western countries on issues that are not crucial to our security. Our ability to achieve this balance may heavily influence the outcome of the Iranian nuclear peril — Israel’s greatest existential threat since its creation.

My hope is that after the elections, Netanyahu will create a broad national government in which Habayit Hayehudi will become be an important and responsible partner.

However, if Habayit Hayehudi makes inordinate political demands or behaves in a demagogic manner to attract extremist voters, it will be sidelined as yet another ineffective extreme right-wing opposition group. In the course of time, like other transitory parties, its support will evaporate.

It would also lose a historic opportunity to displace Shas and the haredi parties as the custodians of religion and ensure that the government strengthens religious Zionist institutions, guaranteeing the retention of Jewish values. In lieu of being regarded as an extreme right-wing party, it should concentrate on becoming an influential national religious force, having a major impact on the future of the nation and the Jewish people.