Israeli Voters Turn Right with a new Political Star

There's a fresh face among traditional politicians vying for votes in Israel's Jan. 22 elections -- an observant Jew, who's a former officer in an IDF elite commando unit and also made millions as a high-tech entrepreneur. His name is Naftali Bennett, and his Jewish Home party has risen to third place in the latest polls -- behind Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud leading alliance with another rightist partner, Israel Our Home, and the runner-up Labor Party.

Why the sudden emergence of another right-wing party, this one led by Bennett? Aren't Israeli conservatives, nationalists and hawks already well represented without Bennett intruding on traditional turfs? Not really.

What makes Bennett special and unique is that he has sounded with great clarity the death-knell of the two-state solution. He makes no bones about turning his back on a two-state bromide that has run into growing popular disenchantment and wariness about Palestinian statehood as an integral part of ending the conflict.

Bennett instead would annex 60 percent of the West Bank, an area currently under full Israeli control, and leave the rest for some form of Palestinian self-rule short of statehood.

Western media have started to report about the Bennett phenomenon, but they tend to attribute it to some general rightward trend, without fully probing its actual causes. Witness, for example, the Washington Post's Joel Greenberg, who dwells on Bennett's youth, charisma and appeal across traditional divides, while paying insufficient attention to existential security worries of Israeli voters that resonate with Bennett on the ballot ("Message of unity, land annexation lifts Israeli party -- Jewish Home's Naftali Bennett siphons support from Netanyahu," Jan. 13, page A12).

The motive elements behind Bennett's rise actually can be summed up in four words -- Lebanon, Gaza, Arafat, Abbas.

When Israelis withdrew from Lebanon expecting peace across the official UN-recognized border, they instead got Hezbollah with an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets.

When Israelis completely evacuated Gaza, they hoped this Palestinian enclave might blossom into a thriving Singapore. Instead, Gaza became a Hamas launch pad for tens of thousands of rockets fired at civilian targets in Israel. Recently, Iranian-supplied advanced rockets demonstrated terrorist fire from Gaza could reach the heart of the Jewish state -- as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Israel's electorate also has painful memories of putting Palestinians under increasing self-rule with the 1993 Oslo accords and offering Yasser Arafat a Palestinian state on all of Gaza, 95 percent of the West Bank and a division of Jerusalem, only to be rewarded with an Arafat-orchestrated terror war that killed more than a thousand Israeli civilians.

And more recently, there are Israel's sour experiences with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who like Arafat rejected an even more generous statehood offer -- with Jerusalem's Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religious shrines shorn from Israel's capital and placed under an international consortium run by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the U.S., Palestine, and Israel. To top it offer, Abbas has abandoned all pretense of willingness to negotiate a two-state solution and instead has launched a full-scale propaganda campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state. All this, and Abbas's glorification of terrorist killers and his latest affront -- a glowing eulogy of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the notorious Arab collaborator in Adolf Hitler's Final Solution.

Given this context for Israel's Jan. 22 balloting, it should come as no surprise that a growing number of Israelis view a two-state solution -- still part of Netanyahu's platform -- as a bitter joke and are inclined to reward Bennett for offering a more clear-eyed security vision for the Jewish state.

Palestinian actions spawned the Bennett phenomenon. It will take a Palestinian Nelson Mandela to defuse it.

Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers