Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu challenged for right-wing vote

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Naftali BennettImage source, AFP
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Naftali Bennett is the dynamic new leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party

Although Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is favourite to be returned to office in Tuesday's general election, he is positioning himself further to the right as he faces pressure from nationalist and religious parties, reports the BBC's Wyre Davies in Jerusalem.

Whether you support him or not, agree or disagree with his controversial opinions, you might be tempted to utter the words: "Thank goodness for Naftali Bennett."

He is young, wealthy and is taking this Israeli election by storm as leader of the Jewish Home party.

He has breathed life into what was otherwise becoming a boring and predictable process.

Loved by aspirational right-wing voters, Naftali Bennett is a dot-com millionaire whose forthright views have drained support away from Mr Netanyahu's ruling Likud Party and given political pundits and journalists plenty to talk about.

The 40-year-old has an impressive CV which helps, in part, to explain his appeal to so many young Israelis.

He served in an elite army unit, then founded a high-tech company specialising in internet security which he reportedly sold in 2006 for US $145m.

An observant Jew who was once Benjamin Netanyahu's chief of staff, Naftali Bennett is now giving his former boss plenty of headaches.

'No Palestinian state'

Mr Bennett is omnipresent on the campaign trail, does not duck controversial issues and says what many on the Israeli right privately think.

At a recent multi-party debate before the foreign media I asked Mr Bennett whether he believed there should ever be a Palestinian state in the West Bank and, if not, how he would satisfy the national ambitions of millions of Palestinians.

His answer was unequivocal.

"I alone, among the parties represented here, am against a Palestinian State in Judea and Samaria, or what you refer to as the West Bank," he said.

"Such a state would mean 200 years of heartache for Israel and the Palestinians. I know they have their ambitions but, as for a Palestinian state, I am against it."

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Settlements have been a big issue in this Israeli election campaign

Mr Bennett is not completely open about how he would deal with the Palestinian issue, if he was ever to become prime minister.

He has talked about the annexation of part of the West Bank - land that the international community universally regards as occupied Palestinian territory - but, unlike some politicians even further to the right, he does not appear to advocate encouraging Palestinians to leave.

Such straight talk has brought Naftali Bennett much criticism from those inside and outside Israel who support the goal of a two-state solution (Israel and an independent Palestine living side-by-side).

But Mr Bennett's discourse has won over thousands of right-wing voters who believe in a "greater Israel".

They were profoundly unhappy with Mr Netanyahu's apparent commitment to the two-state solution - although many of the prime minister's critics maintain he, too, is increasingly hostile to the notion of a Palestinian state, certainly within the so-called "Green Line" or 1948 ceasefire lines.

Coalition partners?

Jewish Home is not about to become the biggest party in the Knesset. It is almost certain that the prime minister's right-wing Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance will enjoy that privilege after Tuesday's vote.

However, in Israel's highly fragmented proportional voting system, Mr Netanyahu is expected to seek a coalition government with other parties from the right, including Naftali Bennett's.

In recent months, to combat the collapse in his own share of the projected vote (down from more than 40 seats to about 32 in the 120-member Knesset) Mr Netanyahu has tried to re-establish his right-wing credentials.

Most notably he has supported more building in Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

A report this week from the left-wing non-governmental organisation, Peace Now, concluded that Mr Netanyahu's policies in his first term "disclose a clear intention to use settlements to systematically undermine and render impossible a realistic, viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict".

Recently the Israeli government announced plans to build thousands of homes for Jewish settlers in an area of the West Bank known as E1.

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There have been strains between the Israeli and American leaders

It is one of the most contentious pieces of land in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With dozens of Jewish settlements already in the area, Palestinians say that if Israel develops E1 it would cut off East Jerusalem and other parts of Palestinian land from each other - denying the possibility of an unbroken future Palestinian state.

'Criticism from friends'

Such moves have brought almost unprecedented international criticism of Israel, including from its closest ally, the United States.

Alongside the huge and controversial separation barrier, which divides Israel from the West Bank, I met David Newman, a professor in politics at Ben Gurion University.

Mr Newman, like many political observers, thinks that the prime minister's shift to the right, as he tries to stay in power, will harm Israel overseas.

"If we get another Netanyahu government - which is highly likely - and he puts together an even more right-wing coalition, Israel is going to come under the brunt of increased international criticism," he says.

He adds, somewhat ruefully: "What is most dangerous is that it'll be criticism from Israel's friends, from Europe and the United States, not from those countries who we already know don't like us!"

It is no secret that Mr Netanyahu and Barack Obama have never been close.

Well-sourced reports from Washington in recent days say the US president "couldn't even bother getting angry" about the prime minister's new plans to expand E1.

Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu are, it seems, heading for an even more uncomfortable relationship during which the fate of the damaged and discredited two-state solution may be finally decided.