RAANANA, Israel — The charismatic new leader of Israel's Jewish religious right is siphoning a large chunk of votes from the prime minister's party, according to polls ahead of Jan. 22 elections, and if the trend continues, the high-tech millionaire and former commando could emerge as a powerful voice opposing Palestinian statehood.
Though Naftali Bennett, the 40-year-old son of American immigrants, is a classic religious hard-liner, comfortable in the settlements he champions, he has been able to draw on his military and entrepreneurial background to widen his appeal to secular circles as well. His sprawling, modern home in Raanana, an upscale suburb of Tel Aviv, is far from the barren hilltops of the West Bank settlers who form the backbone of his support.
Polls show his Jewish Home party becoming the third-largest in the upcoming parliament, behind Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc and the centrist Labor. As Bennett's party gains ground, it has been steadily eating into Netanyahu's still-formidable lead. Several of Netanyahu's recent moves, including a surge in settlement construction announcements, have been attributed to the "Bennett factor."