Netanyahu outflanked on the hard right of Israeli politics by Naftali Bennett

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Something very curious is happening at the top of Israeli politics.

Benjamin Netanyahu - who has flown high as a hawk - is in danger of looking a little doveish.

It is not that the Prime Minister, who seeks and will almost certainly win re-election next week, has transformed himself into a peacenik.

On the contrary; his campaign ads feature an intimidating cast of Israel’s 'nasty neighbours', Hamas and Hezbollah - not forgetting Iran too.

The message: that only strong-man Netanyahu can be trusted to defend the nation.

The problem is that he is being outflanked on the even harder right.

It is probably even more galling for him that the rising star and rival is a former aide.

Like most political pretenders here, Naftali Bennett boasts a military background, in his case as an army commando.

He is also a successful businessman who sold his company for a multi-million dollar fortune.

What marks him out – as we found when we caught up with him on the campaign trail - is a rare energy and a charisma often lacking in his counterparts.

That, and a willingness to speak bluntly.

"Injecting an artificial Arab state within the land of Israel would bring a hundred years of bloodshed and war that would never end. It’s not good for Arabs. It’s not good for Israel,’’ he told me.

It is a message that has thrilled Israel’s settler community – the hundreds of thousands of Jews who live on land occupied by Israel since 1967, illegally according to international law.

Supporters of the the far-right Jewish Home party stand in front of a campaign poster depicting Naftali Bennett in Tel Aviv.
Supporters of the the far-right Jewish Home party stand in front of a campaign poster depicting Naftali Bennett in Tel Aviv. Credit: Reuters

Mr Bennett and his party, Jewish Home, have no plans to turn the land over.

Rather, they propose to annex nearly two thirds of it, inviting any Palestinians who live there to take Israeli citizenship – or to leave.

On the night we see him in action, his popularity is clear. He’s mobbed by supporters, many too young to actually vote.

"He’s a strong man,’’ is their refrain. "He will look after us."

He won’t win the election, of course. But his party might finish third or even second and under the proportional system of government here, that pretty much guarantees him a seat in the next ruling coalition.

His will be an uncompromising voice that will leave Netanyahu – the ace tactician - with less wriggle room as he deals with the tricky issues of settlements, Palestinians, war and peace.

And all that against a backdrop of a new US administration showing signs that it is tired of always having to stick up for its ally, no matter what.

To Israelis, who live in a tough neighbourhood, strong men have always appealed.

But to survive, many know that this country also needs friends and they fret that Bennett and his like on the hard right will only isolate Israel further.