Netanya, Israel – His campaigning resembles a mix of US-style Fox News punditry and Talmudic inspiration. Blending religion, militarism and populist economics in pugilistic soundbites, the rise of the Jewish Home party and its fiery representatives such as Jeremy Gimpel are arguably the biggest stories of Israel’s election campaign.
The far-right party, led by former special-forces commando and high-tech millionaire Naftali Bennett, has in this election moved from the fringes of Israeli political life onto centre stage.
Jewish Home is expected to win 13 or 14 seats in the 120-member Knesset, according to the final polls ahead of Tuesday’s election, meaning it could be a potential coalition partner for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, pushing an already right-wing administration into the realm of ultra-nationalism.
“We absolutely oppose a Palestinian state in the land of Judea and Samaria,” Gimpel told a crowd of two-dozen English-speaking Israelis on the weekend.
If Europe or the US were to pressure Netanyahu to embark on a process of land for peace with the Palestinians, electing politicians from Jewish Home would be “the only way Israel will be able to stand up to international pressure”, Gimpel said.
“Netanyahu will be able to say: ‘I’d love to help [make peace] but there is this second party who oppose any peace deal,'” Gimpel told the crowd, extolling undecided voters – still reportedly about 15 percent of the electorate – to cast their ballots for Jewish Home.
As the fourteenth name on Jewish Home’s electoral list, Gimpel is not one of the party’s senior figures, but if the party does as well as is expected to, he may well have a seat in the Knesset.
The party’s message, delivered by a charismatic leader and a new generation of young, far-right politicians, seems to be resonating. “Bennett is a good man,” Danit, an insurance saleswoman who didn’t want her last name used, told Al Jazeera as she shopped in Jerusalem. “He has a strong root identity and understands both the army and the economy.”
“We absolutely oppose a Palestinian state in the land of Judea and Samaria.”
– Jeremy Gimpel, Jewish Home
Four key factors seem to be driving Jewish Home’s surge: Anger among right-wing voters over a coalition between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, Netanyahu’s economic policies which are seen as too friendly to the country’s tycoons, Bennett’s personal appeal, and a general rightward shift in Israeli public opinion.
“Right-wing positions are more credible right now because no-one else [in the Israeli establishment] really has anything different to offer,” Marco Allegra, a professor and author of Two States or Not Two States, told Al Jazeera. “Continuing the status quo [of no serious negotiations] is the only way to go on with the idea of a completely Jewish state without giving up any territory.”
Wearing a small kippah, Gimpel and other Jewish Home politicians portray themselves as defenders of Judaism in a hostile world.
“Parties like Jewish Home are nationalist and religious at the same time,” Allegra said.
Traditional religious parties, specifically Shas, cater to specific groups – mainly the ultra-Orthodox. Jewish Home, however, frames itself as something different, urging the country to adopt what it sees as a more modern and less sectarian form of religious identity.
“I see this party as ‘religious-lite’… they don’t push [their beliefs on others],” Philip Lehrer, a retired businessman who recently moved to Israel, told Al Jazeera after watching Gimpel’s speech. Lehrer still isn’t sure if he will vote for Jewish Home, but he was impressed by what he heard.
Challenging the ‘radical left’
Thirty-three years old and casually dressed, Gimpel says he is the youngest person, in the youngest party in Israel.
Part of a hipper incarnation of the religious right, Gimpel seems to mirror a trend that happened in the US during the George W Bush era.
The image of young Republicans, especially on college campuses, shifted from stereotypical portraits of an overweight guy with a bowtie and bad combover, to “cooler” new conservatives wearing faded jeans and goatees, doing keg-stands between William F Buckley reading sessions.
“For years, being post-Zionist was cool. Now it’s cool to be a Zionist.“
– Jeremy Gimpel, Jewish Home
“For years, being post-Zionist was cool,” Gimpel told the crowd, who were mostly greying retirees. “Now it’s cool to be a Zionist.”
Like members of the religious right in the US, where he lived much of his life, Gimpel rails against what he sees as leftist control over key institutions. “There are three strongholds of the anti-Zionist left in Israel: academia, the media and the supreme court,” he said, hinting that his party would attempt to challenge what he called “the radical left’s hold on Israeli consciousness”.
He believes domestic critics of government policies are enabling the country’s external enemies, but his party’s refusal to discuss territorial exchanges is likely to alienate traditional allies.
One state solution?
Jewish Home has outflanked Likud on the right, often making gains at Netanyahu’s expense, leading to a series of bitter exchanges throughout the campaign. Some of Jewish Home’s key policies would be considered somewhat extreme, even by the right-leaning Likud.
“Let’s annex Area C [of the West Bank], just like we did with the Golan [captured from Syria in 1967] and the western wall,” Gimpel told Al Jazeera after his speech. The 50,000 Palestinians living in the area, he said, would be given Israeli nationality. The proposal for annexation is considered politically impossible by some analysts, as it would likely generate massive international outcry.
To some, the idea almost sounds like a right-wing incarnation of the “one state solution” – generally viewed as a plan originating from the left where both Palestinians and Israelis would live in one country with equal voting rights and a secular constitution. The one state, in the view of Jewish Home, however, would be Israel – and its fundamental identity and legal character would be Jewish.
“The so-called liberal Zionists basically argued that ‘we can’t have a Jewish state and all the land’,” Ali Abunimah, author of One Country: A bold proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, told Al Jazeera. “Those [in Israel] who say ‘we can have all the land and a Jewish state’ have won.”
As the Palestinian population in the occupied territories rises, demographic shifts continue to alter long-term outlooks for the conflict; some analysts believe the idea behind Bennett’s proposal for Area C could have unintended consequences.
“The Palestinians could say: “Okay, we don’t want a state anymore, give us a right to vote in the Knesset,'” Allegra said.
Jewish Home wouldn’t be impressed by the idea of Palestinians electing the government of Israel.
Bennett’s party favours the status quo – no peace talks, continued settlement construction and outsourcing security in the occupied territories to the Palestinian Authority.
“All the [Israeli] checkpoints inside Area A and Area B should be removed,” Gimpel said, arguing it would make the status quo more acceptable for Palestinians.
“Israel is the only country in the world today where Jews are being systematically persecuted and killed,” he added, saying: “Israeli is about to come under unprecedented international pressure.”
Internationally, critics worry that having a party such as Jewish Home in government probably won’t make painting a positive picture of Israel any easier.
Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter as he reports on Israel’s election: @AJEchris