Naftali Bennett is reshaping Israeli politics

In what was seen originally as a predictable election campaign, the surprise development so far is being supplied by a party that was written off not long ago.

Under the maverick leadership of 40-year-old high-tech millionaire Naftali Bennett, Habayit Hayehudi, a rebranded version of the National Religious Party (NRP), has taken large chunks of votes from Likud. In the latest polls, it has established itself as the third-largest party in the next Knesset, with around ten per cent of the vote.

Habayit Hayehudi’s surge does not fundamentally change the political balance because the right-wing party will only support Benjamin Netanyahu as the next prime minister, but its growth will create major headaches for Mr Netanyahu when he tries to form his new coalition.

Habayit Hayehudi’s success is partly due to the fact that Israeli society is becoming more religious and right-wing. And Mr Bennett has revitalised the moribund party with young and attractive figures, including, for the first time in its history, a secular candidate, who is also a young woman.

He has been helped by Mr Netanyahu’s decision to run with Yisrael Beiteinu, seen as “extreme secular” by a section of Likud voters. Mr Netanyahu’s approval of building projects across the Green Line is directly linked to his need to prove his right-wing credentials to voters who are deliberating between the two nationalist parties.

Last week, Mr Bennett said in a TV interview: “If I receive an order to evict a Jew from his house and expel him, personally, my conscience wouldn’t allow it.” This statement is already being used by Likud to show that Mr Bennett is an extremist who cannot be trusted with the country’s future.

Last updated: 6:45pm, December 27 2012