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'We Are a Lighthouse in a Very Turbulent Storm'

Economics Minister Naftali Bennett rejects EU boycotts, the idea of land for peace, and complaints against the hareidi draft.
By Tova Dvorin
First Publish: 2/28/2014, 2:27 PM

Naftali Bennett
Naftali Bennett
Flash 90

Economics Minister and Jewish Home Chairman Naftali Bennett spoke at the academic Kathedra conference Friday, according to Channel 10. At the conference, the Minister spoke on several current events issues, including the hareidi draft, hesder yeshivas, peace talks with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and his often-stormy relationship with Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid). 

"It's good that [Lapid] views me as a distant brother," Bennett stated about Lapid. Lapid recently stated that "Bennett has been demoted to a distant cousin" - having previously referred to him as "my brother" - at a previous Kathedra conference.

"The connection with Lapid is an important one," Bennett stressed. "There are a lot of arguments between us but we often have consensus. Despite the disagreements we [still] do good things. Beyond that, I am fond of him on a personal level."

Bennett was also asked about his controversial statement last month calling Yesh Atid "a dictatorship." 

"[Jewish Home] has primaries, compared to other parties that do not," Bennett responded. "I am proud that we have primaries, in which, by the way, we don't have a monopoly on who gets to be heard." 

Talks Will Not Lead to Peace

The Minister also argued that the pursuit of an interim agreement with the PA has been leading to catastrophe.

"I come from the business world. A necessary condition for the economic prosperity of the country is quiet. You cannot run the economy when there are exploding buses, or when there is a war," he explained. In contrast, "terror and death is catastrophic for the economy" - something he said was often triggered by the diplomatic process.

"Often the pursuit of an agreement only leads to catastrophe." 

"Camp David preceded the Second Intifada," Bennett noted. "[There], Ehud Barak offered everything by the book. In exchange we received the murder of about 1,000 Israelis in the streets of Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. It shattered the economy."

"Irresponsible measures like the Disengagement [from Gaza and northern Samaria in 2005 - ed.] cause enormous damage," he continued. "Since the Disengagement we have been attacked by thousands of rockets. One rocket from Judea and Samaria that hits a plane is enough to destroy the entire Israeli economy: tourism, high-tech, and everything due to 'good will.' The assumption that handing territory over will bring peace is a mistake, in my opinion."

"Our country is an economic success story: in a hostile region, where we are the 'eye of the storm' of the Arab states around us, 2013 was a record year in terms of investments." 

The Jewish Home Chairman rejected threats of a boycott against Israel.

"They are trying to scare the people of Israel [into an agreement with the PA] by saying we will be isolated economically," he said. "The actual situation is different: I was at a meeting this week of the 40 economic ministers from the EU. They did not agree with our policies, but all were impressed by the economic boom. We are a lighthouse in a very turbulent storm." 

"Just look at our technology: We export ten times the output of tomatoes and cucumbers in India, we help Africa with its water problems, we help banks with their security and assist the disabled with advanced technology," he added.

Equal Burden of Service? No Big Deal

Bennett also commented on the hareidi draft law, which has caused enormous tension between the hareidi community and the greater portion of the Israeli public over the past several weeks.

"The Equal Burden of Service Law is good for the country," Bennett stressed.

"I hear the side of the public that believes that the law is not really 'equal'," he said - a reference to complaints that hareidi draft-dodgers will not face immediate criminal sanctions - "but we are talking about a law here that stems from the understanding that nothing will come out of a forced draft."

Bennett also emphasized his position that the most important aspect of the new law was in encouraging hareidim to join the work force.

"An important aspect of this is that the law helps the hareidi community find employment," he continued. "The IDF can survive without the hareidi community, but the state of Israel cannot survive without hareidim in the workforce." 

The Economics Minister also sought to calm the furor over hesder yeshivas - religious Zionist institutions which combine intensive Torah study with army service - stressing the importance of hesder yeshiva service to the state.

Responding to pressure from the Left to end or curtail the hesder track, whose participants mostly perform just 17 months active service, as opposed to a full three years, the Jewish Home leader urged a sense of perspective.

Noting that most religious Zionist youth opt for other tracks, including religious "mechinot" (pre-military academies), which allow for a full three-year service, he claimed criticism of the hesder track was misguided. 

"There is a certain obsession about this," he noted. "Only about 700 students sign up for the 17-month track every year. This is a negligible number."

"[Hesder yeshiva] students are not called draft-dodgers because the system sees that the value of building Jewish communities and serving in the IDF were important," he stressed. "Besides for that, these yeshivas produce Rabbis who encourage their communities to understand that both IDF service and Torah study are important." 

The new law was brought back into the public eye following a High Court ruling suspending funding to yeshivas whose students had their enlistment deferred. That postponement was ordered by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon to give the Shaked Committee time to finish its work.

While the ruling was thought to be meaningless, given that February's yeshiva funds had already been allocated, Finance Minister Yair Lapid took advantage of a loophole to retroactively cancel funding to all yeshivas earlier this month, sparking massive hareidi protests. The hesder yeshiva community was also affected by the funding cuts.