JERUSALEM — In the heart of Ajami, the last remnant of what was once the thriving Palestinian coastal city of Jaffa, dozens of religious students at the Song of Moses Yeshiva bicker over their Talmudic interpretations. "We are here to restore Judaism on the coast and turn Jaffa into a spiritual home in the heart of Tel Aviv," says its administrator, Hanan Hochster.
Hochster is part of the vanguard of Israel's national-religious settlers who, over the past half-decade, have swept down from their hilltop garrisons in the occupied West Bank. Their mission is nothing less than to conquer metropolitan Israel. "After the disengagement from Gush Katif [the Jewish settlements in Gaza], we realized that we lost the land because we lost the people, and had to win them back," he says. As part their studies, which combines Talmud with military training, each student is obliged to spend five hours a week on community service.
Their political arm is Jewish Home, a right-wing party whose rise inside mainstream Israel has been no less startling. Like the Jaffa Yeshiva, which has almost doubled its student body in a year, Jewish Home quadrupled its seats to 12 in Israel's Jan. 22 election, turning it from the Knesset's smallest party into the fourth largest. Its leader, millionaire Israeli businessman Naftali Bennett, has become the rising star on Israel's political scene over the course of the campaign.
The rise of Yair Lapid, a media personality-turned-politician, has become the story of this Israeli election -- but it is Bennett who was responsible for the poor showing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party. While other parties fought over the scraps from Kadima, a centrist party that imploded, Bennett targeted Netanyahu's voter base, depleting his party's coalition from 42 seats to 31. As a result, Netanyahu faces a series of tough decisions as he mulls how to assemble a governing coalition that will return him to the premiership.
To Israel's ruling elites, Jewish Home seeks to supplant not only the remains of historic Palestine but the secular Israel they built on its ruins. Secular Jews have railed at the descent of hilltop zealots and ultra-orthodox Jewish rabbis, who consider their military zeal and nationalism a perversion of biblical tradition. Fearful that Bennett would strip him of voters on the religious right, Netanyahu warned settlers against making "a historic, fatal mistake ... of splitting their votes, weakening the Likud, and bringing a left-wing government to power."
But amid rising social discontent, Israelis are increasingly looking for alternatives -- and both Bennett and Lapid fit the bill. As elsewhere in the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of young Israelis took to the streets in protest at their rulers in 2011, while religious nationalists capitalized at the ballot box on their discontent with crony capitalism and security regimes that ride roughshod over the aspirations of their people. Bennett likens religious Zionism's rise to the Arab Awakening, which has seen Islamists topple old elites across the region. It is, he says, "a Jewish Spring."
In part, Bennett is the beneficiary of a protest vote against the two older right-wing parties: Likud and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann's Yisrael Beiteinu. Once the party of Israel's underdogs, Likud under Netanyahu seemed increasingly the voice of the establishment and its business interests. Critics accused its leaders of being lackluster and uninspiring -- concerned with their own survival and devoid of diplomatic initiatives or fresh ideas on getting Israel's ultra-orthodox and Arab population off welfare and into work. Lieberman's image, meanwhile, was tarnished by an indictment on corruption charges. His predominantly Russian followers have also abandoned him in droves, upset that the Moldavian immigrant has forsaken their interests for mainstream political success.
The Netanyahu-Lieberman alliance is no less controversial within Likud. A powerful national-religious caucus inside the party has berated Netanyahu for embracing Lieberman, an ardent secularist who wants to ease rabbinic restrictions on Jews marrying non-Jews. An ultra-orthodox election broadcast parodied the party in a sketch that imagines the party sending fax machines to weddings so that a non-Jewish partner can receive instant conversion certificates.