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Charismatic ex-commando pressures Netanyahu from the right as Israel prepares to vote

TEL AVIV, Israel — Something very curious is happening at the top of Israeli politics.

Benyamin Netanyahu — who has flown high as a hawk — is in danger of looking a little dovish.

It’s not that the prime minister, who seeks and will almost certainly win re-election on Tuesday, has transformed himself into a peacenik. On the contrary; his campaign ads feature an intimidating cast of Israel’s nasty neighbors Hamas, Hezbollah and doesn't forget Iran. The message — that only strong-man Netanyahu can be trusted to defend the nation.

The problem is that Netanyahu is being outflanked on the even harder right, which means that after the elections, he will feel pressure to become more hardline on issues such as Palestinian statehood. 

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

'100 years of bloodshed'

Like most political pretenders here, Naftali Bennett boasts a military background, in his case as an army commando. He’s also a successful businessman who sold his company for a multi-million dollar fortune. What distinguishes him 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 100 years of bloodshed and war that would never end. It’s not good for the Arabs. It’s not good for the Israelis," he said.

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.  Peace talks with the Palestinians — around 2.5 million of whom live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — ground to a halt in 2010 after Netanyahu decided not to extend a moratorium on the building of settlements.

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Netanyahu maintains that he is still committed to the creation of a Palestinian state as part of peace deal, but only as long as it is not a threat to Israel's security.

For their part, Bennett and his Jewish Home party have no plans to turn the land over. Rather, the party proposes to annex nearly two-thirds of it, inviting any Palestinians who live there to take Israeli citizenship — or to leave. His popularity was clear during a recent rally in the southern city of Be'er Sheva as supporters, many too young to actually vote, mobbed him.

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Bennett is especially popular among the Jewish population in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, where Israeli soldiers patrol streets closed to Palestinians to protect a few hundred settlers.

"He’s a good guy, a very good guy," two young Jewish men said as they flashed a thumbs-up. 

Bennett is strong and will look after Jewish communities, many fellow settlers believe.

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 uncompromising voice will leave Netanyahu — the ace tactician — with less wiggle room as he deals with the tricky issues of settlements, Palestinians, war and peace.

And all that against a backdrop of a new American 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 neighborhood, 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.

Follow NBC / ITV correspondent John Ray on Twitter.


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