Will the real Naftali Bennett please stand up?

A previously unpublished interview with the man who would be prime minister. Opinion.

Sara Lehmann ,

Naftali Bennett
Naftali Bennett
Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90     

A little over nine years ago, a good friend from Queens called me up with a request. Can I please interview an Israeli speaker with a good English who is in New York for a few days and can talk about the Middle East?

My friend had been tasked with finding a speaker on the topic of Israel for a local shul dinner. Failing to locate a prominent Israeli politician, she was desperate to find anyone with a good English. Someone suggested a little-known Israeli entrepreneur who happened to be in New York. Having no choice, she arranged for him to speak. His speech was a big success. My friend liked what she heard and, with the help of a PR consultant, got him on local media stations to speak on Israel’s behalf.

I met him on March 6, 2012, in the basement of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue on the Upper East Side. We spoke against the backdrop of a boisterous group of children in a playgroup in the room next door. I too was impressed with what I heard. After listening to his ideology on Israel and the Middle East, which I recorded, I urged him to go into politics. I told him that the only way to implement what I thought were excellent ideas was to enact them into policy as a politician.

The man’s name was Naftali Bennett.

Others must have urged him in a similar fashion. The following year, Bennett was elected chairman of Habayit Hayehudi-National Religious Party, and in 2013 led his party to a victory of 12 seats in the Knesset.

For several reasons, that interview did not go to print at the time. Here are the unadulterated words of a seemingly idealistic man who had yet to enter politics. Words that seemed as genuine at the time as they were passionate. Yet close to a decade later, those ideals collided with political ambition. Demonstrating that, while power corrupts, absolute hunger for power is absolutely never satiated.

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What do you think was the biggest determining factor in influencing your nationalistic views?

I served in the Sayeret Matkal unit, which is the unit that both Bibi and Bibi’s older brother Yoni, who died, served in. Growing up, Yoni was my hero. I read his letters, the famous Michtavei Yoni, and my first son Yoni is named after him. I fought in all major conflicts in the past two decades.

I learned a big lesson from the Lebanon years. I noticed that after we took out several Hezbollah terrorists, we’d have quiet for a few months. When we stopped attacking, that’s when they started hitting us. That’s where I learned very clearly that Israel’s only option is to be on the offense. We cannot be defensive because that only invites aggression from their side.

When the second Lebanese War came, which was not a big war, coupled with Ahmadinejad, who was just emerging and talking about wiping Israel off the earth, I realized - whoa, this isn’t Teaneck, NJ or LA. Israel is not America. We have a clear and present threat that wants to wipe us off the earth. They’re not looking for a piece of land; they’re looking to remove the Jews.

How did this realization impact you in a practical way?

At that point, instead of going back to hi-tech, Bibi Netanyahu was head of opposition and was looking for a chief of staff. He was at his lowest, head of a very small party of twelve seats. I joined him there with the goal of turning him into the prime minister again. I got up every day from 2006-2008 as the chief of staff because I deeply believed in the man and in his ideas and in his older brother.

In 2009, the heads of the Yesha Council asked me to join and run the council as CEO. That’s where our heritage started. If you give up Chevron, Bet El, Elon Moreh, Beit Lechem, or Kever Rachel, Israel will be a body without a soul. A body cannot exist long-term without a soul. And for security reasons too. Anyone understands that if you try three times to pull out of an area, in Yehudah and Shomron, in Lebanon and in Gaza, and each time Iran comes in, you have to be really insane to try a fourth time.

Do you hold any current political position now or are seeking any?

No. When I joined the Yesha Council, I also co-founded an organization called My Israel, Yisrael Sheli, along with a very talented woman named Ayelet Shaked. It’s a grassroots national organization that started with zero members. Today we exceeded 80,000 members. It’s Israel’s biggest grassroots organization by far.

What is the organization’s message?

To strengthen Israel’s Jewish and Zionist identity. That’s the main message because today the biggest threat to Israel is not Iran. The real threat is the battle for Israel’s soul. Some people in academia, the judicial system, and the media are seeking a non-Zionist and non-Jewish Israel. An Israel like all nations.

I’ll give a few examples. Our supreme court ruled very recently that to settle the Negev and the Galilee with Jewish settlements is racist. Galei Tzahal is the army radio. During Operation Cast Lead, while our soldiers were fighting Hamas in Gaza and dying, they interviewed the Hamas spokesperson, the enemy.

It means someone has lost their moral compass. Another example is Ben Gurion University in the Negev. It vehemently opposes settling the Negev with Jews. Think of the irony here. What was Ben Gurion’s raison d’etre except for founding Israel? To settle the Negev with Jews!

And there’s been an explosion of NGOs within Israel that are out to undermine our Jewish identity. By far, the biggest damage is from the New Israel Fund. It is a serious danger to Israel’s future. Every dollar that goes to them is a dollar tying our soldiers’ hands from fighting, undermining our identity, prosecuting Israeli officers in criminal courts, and supporting boycotting Israel abroad. Their goal is to remove the Zionist and Jewish identity of Israel. This includes organizations like Betzalel, Yesh Din, Adalah, J Street.

It’s time to wake up.

Israel is facing pressure on all fronts – from Iran, the Palestinians, President Obama. Do you think Netanyahu has the strength of character to carry Israel through?

On the plus side, I think Netanyahu’s heart is in the right place. He is an incredibly intelligent person. He has an historic perspective on things. Where he needs our help is to be there to hold him strong. I’m profoundly disappointed with Netanyahu regarding the Palestinian state and the cave on the Shalit deal.

Caving into terrorists makes it more pleasant in the short term but very soon we’re going to see the repercussions of that disastrous deal.

Netanyahu met Obama and stated that “Israel remains the master of its fate” and is entitled to “defend itself, by itself”. At the same time Obama says he “has Israel’s back”. Is Obama to be trusted?

Here’s the deal – as it is right now most of Iran’s facilities are exposed, vulnerable. So, Israel could potentially severely damage their progress there. They are in the process of rapidly moving them underground. Once underground, Israel will no longer be able to stop Iran. America still will because of its superior military power, its proximity to the area, its superior bunker busters, so there is a period where Israel’s ability to attack has lapsed but America still has many months to attack Iran.

But Obama essentially is asking us put our existence and fate in his hands, to trust him. I think that’s unacceptable. I think Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear that’s unacceptable. If there’s one lesson we have learned from our history it’s that we cannot trust anyone. Regardless of the president, no Israeli prime minister can take our fate and outsource our existence to an American president.

Can you comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The world doesn’t care anymore about the conflict. Everyone understands - Israelis, Arabs, the world - that this conflict is not going to be solved, certainly not in this generation and in the sense of a peace treaty that people envisioned. For the simple reason that the most that Israeli leaders were willing to give and the least that the Palestinians were willing to accept doesn’t coincide. There’s no overlap. The Palestinians aren’t willing to accept Israel as a Jewish state.

What are Israel’s options?

We can continue the status quo, but the problem is it will slowly and gradually erode our international standing and eventually our security. It’s time for Israel to take the initiative. Until now there were only two games - either the position of a Palestinian state on almost all of Yehuda and Shomron or the right-wing position that says annex all of Yehuda and Shomron. But we can’t neglect the fact that there are around 2 million Arabs there. And you can’t annex it and keep them at a lower level. We’d be subject to claims of apartheid.

We came up with a plan that I call the stability initiative. It’s a practical program for living with the conflict. Effectively it’s pretty simple. It says there are two types of areas in Yehuda and Shomron –Area C, which is Israeli controlled area, and Areas A and B, which are Palestinian controlled areas. 100% of the Israelis live in Area C and only 2% of the Palestinians live there.

Here’s the idea - we declare full Israeli sovereignty over Area C immediately and unilaterally. There’s no agreement because there won’t be an agreement. We offer Israeli citizenship to those 47 thousand Arabs there. Some will take it and some won’t, like in East Jerusalem.

Do you think that’s realistic in an era that finds Israel increasingly isolated worldwide?

I think it’s very realistic. Menachem Begin, in 1981, did the exact same thing with the Golan Heights. He declared sovereignty and the Knesset approved the law called the Golan Heights Law. The world to this day does not recognize the Golan Heights as Israel nor does it recognize the Western Wall or Har Hazeitim or Ir David.

I have no illusions. No one in the world will recognize Yehuda and Shomron as Israel, but they will gradually get used to it. The time is ripe now because the Oslo Accords have been breached so fundamentally by the Palestinians.

Do you think Israel has the courage for such a move?

I think the problems we have stem from one thing – from repeating the message of being scared of the nations. We have to make clear to the world that we are not a banana republic or a puppet state. The alliance with America is a two-way alliance. America wasn’t willing to take out Syria’s weapons, so we did the job. In a sense we’re a light unto the nations by protecting the world.

There’s a clear present danger emerging from Iran and we’re stepping up to the plate, so we don’t have to be apologetic to anyone. The primary work needs to start in Israel but I think we also need to make the case to American Jews, and to American politicians and media, that the two-state solution is dead.

We have to break the glass ceiling that Israel can’t declare sovereignty over Yehuda and Shomron. Because in some corridors there is a passion to give up land. There are some people who are so determined to give up Eretz Yisrael. First, they say it’s for peace. When they peace doesn’t work, they say it’s for security or demography. The excuse changes but not the goal of giving up our land.

If you want to defeat Israel, it’s not with terror, not with conventional armies invading from all around, not diplomacy or even boycotting. The way to defeat us is to persuade us of the narrative that this land belonged to Arabs from time immemorial, and that the Jews had that horrible thing called the Holocaust and as a compensation to us we came into someone else’s land, removed them, and built a colonial type state.

This is the battle that is being waged in universities, tv studios, on twitter, YouTube and Facebook, and in international criminal courts. That’s the defining battle of our generation. We have to understand that it all starts there. My friends and I fought many times and are willing to do it again and again, but we have to know what we’re fighting for.

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That was then; this is now

Trampling on promises as he claws his way to the top, Bennett’s mandate, at 6% of Israel’s vote, is now half the size of what he called Netanyahu’s “lowest point” years ago. And polls show that two-thirds of that 6% reject the deal Bennett has made with Lapid. With miniscule support from Israel’s citizens, Netanyahu rightly calls Bennett’s bid “the biggest election scam in history” and the “fraud of the century”.

The Bennett I listened to a decade ago was both idealistic and sensible. He spoke with conviction about not bending one’s principles for political gain. About keeping one’s word. About having the backbone to resist pressure when fighting for what is best for the Jewish State.

Bennett was right to have told me nine years ago that, “If there’s one lesson we have learned from our history it’s that we cannot trust anyone”. But that lesson should have been directed at himself. In what can only be explained as political greed, Bennett broke all the vows he made within the span of a few weeks, some brazenly made on television interviews.

“In no way will I give my hand to a government led by Yair Lapid, not in a regular way or with a rotation, because I am a right-wing man and Lapid is a man of the left and I don’t sell my values.” Days after this vow, Bennett joined forces with Lapid’s party. And with Meretz, whose leader Nitzan Horowitz who has agreed to Israeli soldiers being tried at the Hague and who is poised to be in the security cabinet. And with Labor, whose Reform rabbi party member praises J Street. All positions Bennett vehemently denounced in our interview.

Worse, he joined with Ra’am Party’s Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Southern Islamic Movement. A few weeks ago, Bennett promised never to join forces with Abbas. Today he praises him and pledges billions of shekels to “integrate” the Bedouin sector, legalize almost all Bedouin villages in the Negev and extend a freeze on enforcement against illegal Bedouin construction in the Negev. Bennett couldn’t have made the Supreme Court and Ben Gurion University prouder.

In 2012, Bennett declared “the two-state solution is dead”. But he has now anchored himself to the very parties, chiefly among them Labor and Meretz, who advocate what Bennett termed “a passion to give up land”. A few short years after our interview, Netanyahu rejected the idea of a two-state solution and concluded that “there is no partner for peace”. Bibi has not backtracked on that conclusion ever since.

But the would-be prime minister is aiming to lead a coalition with a leftist majority committed to the two-state solution and opposed to settlements and annexation. So much for annexing Area C, with bedfellows who utterly reject Bennett’s dream “to break the glass ceiling that Israel can’t declare sovereignty over Yehuda and Shomron”.

Indeed, senior officials from the bloc have declared intentions of renewing negotiations toward a two-state solution as soon as the new government is sworn into office. Meretz's Esawi Frej, who is positioned to serve as regional cooperation minister in the new coalition, is quoted as saying that the first thing he plans to do upon entering office is to travel to Ramallah to meet with the PA’s Abbas.

Nine years ago, Bennett was adamant about maintaining Israel’s opposition to a nuclear Iran and declared “no Israeli prime minister can take our fate and outsource our existence to an American president”. But political expediency has watered down his position so that Bennett now expresses full faith in Biden and said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 20 in April, “"We need to work with the administration to craft the conditions for a return to the [2015 nuclear] deal."

In a Politico piece, analysts sum up the bonds Bennett has placed on himself. “He’s likely to lower the temperature with Washington, temporarily subvert Netanyahu’s obsession with blocking the Iran nuclear accord, and try to refrain from provocative actions towards Palestinians certain to rile his centrist and left-wing partners and collapse the fragile government.” Netanyahu is right to fear that Bennett will not be able to stand up to the pressure regarding Iran.

If there was one major theme that Bennet reiterated over and over, both in our recorded conversation and afterwards, it was his belief that Israel is fighting the “battle for Israel’s soul”. His abandonment of every religious party, by embracing secular and leftist cohorts, especially Labor, Meretz, and Yisrael Beyteinu, belies his own statements. And has led to those religious party leaders to brand him “evil”.

Bennett the man concluded his interview with me by saying, “we have to know what we’re fighting for”. But if a man breaks his promises so that he can only be judged by his actions, it would seem that Bennett the politician is fighting for himself.

In designing this so called “change bloc”, Bennett declares that his goal is “change” the status quo. But all he really is doing is changing his own words. Again.

Sara Lehmann is a NY columnist and interviewer with Hamodia. Her writings can be found at saralehmann.com.



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