Israel’s upcoming tribal census

Daniel Levy writes: Israelis will go to the polls on Jan. 22 to elect a new parliament and, by extension, government — an event that has so far attracted relatively little international attention. Understandably so: Benjamin Netanyahu just came closer than any Israeli prime minister in more than two decades to serving out a full parliamentary term, and nobody expects him to lose. His putative challengers from the center have been unable to find, coalesce around, or attract enough support for a credible alternative candidate.

If this election does have a headline, it is the coming of age of Israel’s new right, encapsulated by the candidacy of Naftali Bennett, 40, the new leader of Habayit Hayehudi, the “Jewish Home” Party, which is storming to third place in the polls, having shared the honor of being the smallest party in the outgoing Knesset. Bennett, a former advisor to Netanyahu, is an interesting character: A dot-com millionaire of American parentage, he served in the military’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit, wears a kippa, and is deeply rooted in the national religious movement. Bennett’s soft-spoken style often obscures his hard-line views: He is radically pro-settler and even annexationist in his position on the territories. Israel’s most popular political satire show, Eretz Nehederet (“A Wonderful Country”), has caricatured him as a new software app: the iBennett, a modern version of the old settler model — “no beard, no crazy-mystical gaze, smaller kippa” — but with occasional glitches (the spoof iBennett character recognizes there are other nations in God’s promised land, sounding reasonable, but then reverts to type by claiming “God will strike them with a plague of frogs”).

Alongside Bennett’s rapid rise, Jan. 22 is best understood as a “Tribes of Israel” election — taking identity politics to a new level. Floating votes may exist within the tribes of Israel, but movement between tribes, or political blocs, is almost unheard of. Israelis seem to relate their political choices almost exclusively to embedded social codes rather than contesting policies. [Continue reading…]

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