The stirring speech by the chairman of HaBayit HaYehudi, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, succeeded in convincing only some of the participants at the large, right-wing conference on Oct. 2. Upon leaving the hall at the National Convention Center in Jerusalem, Bennett was assailed by a group of young people chanting “Traitor!” and “You’re disgusting! What about the Land of Israel?” It was a very disappointing moment for someone who had just stood on stage a few moments earlier and noted what he had said about the settlements in an interview with Al Jazeera: “A nation cannot be a conqueror in its own land.”
At the “One State for One People” conference, Bennett reiterated one motif throughout his speech: The Jewish people have a right to the Land of Israel. The event was intended to apply pressure to the government to put a stop to negotiations with the Palestinians. This contrarian message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who decided to renew the peace process, caused Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz and Minister of Agriculture Yair Shamir, both from Likud-Beiteinu, to withdraw from the conference at the last minute, despite promises to attend.
Unlike them, Bennett not only showed up, but he also delivered a speech. But the final images of him being rushed outside the building to the crowd’s jeers exposed the tense relations between Bennett and the deeply ideological right-wing element among the settlers, who regard his sitting in a government that released Palestinian prisoners as a sin, if not an act of treason.
Over the past few months, voices of disappointment and resentment toward Bennett have also been increasing among other groups in the religious Zionist community, even though it anointed him its leader and helped his party win 12 seats in January elections. One of these groups, the hard core of the National Religious Party, has already marked him as someone who has failed to deliver to their sector.
This began with Bennett’s defeat in June, when he tried to ensure Rabbi David Stav’s victory in the battle over the country’s next Ashkenazi chief rabbi. After that, he failed to prevent budget cuts to educational institutions affiliated with the religious Zionist sector, cuts advocated by his political ally and finance minister, Yair Lapid.
That is why, over the past few weeks, Bennett has faced a chilly reception at religious Zionist gatherings, along with jarring accusations and a steady stream of criticism. While it is true that HaBayit HaYehudi has maintained its strength in recent polls, more in-depth surveys, some of them conducted for Bennett himself, cannot ignore the strains bubbling beneath the surface that bode ill for him.
Eight months after the 2013 elections, the man who emerged as the great hope of the ideological right wing has been unable to leverage his electoral achievement. Bennett’s big plan was to take over the institutions of HaBayit HaYehudi and begin the process of establishing a major party that would compete with the ruling Likud and eventually run him as its candidate for the premiership. Anyone familiar with Bennett knows that he aims as high as possible.
In light of his master plan, Bennett highlighted economic and social issues in his election campaign. His goal was to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, in the spirit of the social protests of 2011. This, along with his fresh young image, succeeded in overshadowing the more extreme elements of his party, such as Knesset member Orit Struk and Minister of Housing and Construction Uri Ariel. If he could, Bennett would focus on his role as minister of economic affairs, concentrating on civil issues, while reducing his involvement in the diplomatic sphere. He would rather introduce large-scale reforms to the Israeli economy, using them to score points on his way to the premiership.
In a recent post to his Facebook page, Bennett complained that every time he updates his followers about an important economic decision he has made, the responses accuse him of abandoning the Land of Israel. He then turned to his supporters and tried to assuage their fears, writing, “I have my finger on the pulse, when it comes to this. I am a member of the cabinet and kept well up to date.” He concluded by saying, “I am minister of economy and trade of all the people of Israel, and not just of a particular sector. I hope that these good friends understand that there are other important issues, apart from the future of Judea and Samaria (which is very important to me).”
The conflict between Bennett’s desire to be economy and trade minister for everyone, beloved by the public, and a candidate for premiership versus the sectorial demands of the settlers is taking its toll on his stature internally. The ideological right wing has already marked him as someone who would rather hold on to his seat while ignoring diplomatic moves by the Netanyahu government. After the decision to release Palestinian prisoners, taken by the government despite Bennett's objection in July, its members demanded that he resign.
The decline in support for Bennett is unfortunate. He may have lacked political experience, and he made a number of mistakes along the way, but his entry into Israeli politics was a breath of fresh air and important. He is young, talented and full of good intentions. He works around the clock and does everything he can to be a good minister of economy and trade — one who makes a difference. Bennett is a positive figure in Israeli politics, and his presence in the political arena is also in the interest of Israel’s sane right.
Mazal Mualem is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and formerly a chief political analyst for Maariv and Haaretz. She also previously worked for Bamachane, the Israeli army's weekly newspaper.