An Interview With Naftali Bennett: Army Commander, Politician, and Businessman
One of the most intriguing personalities to recently throw his name into the Israeli political ring is 40-year-old Naftali Bennett. A success story in various fields, his impressive resume includes the company commander of an elite army unit, the co-founder and CEO of a successful high-tech company, the Chief of Staff for Benjamin Netanyahu while he was the opposition leader, the CEO of the Yesha Council, the co-founder of the MyIsrael national movement and the founder of the Yisraelim movement.
In addition, for the last six months he has been promoting a plan for Israel to start increasing sovereignty over Judea and Samaria by formally annexing “Area C”. No wonder his announcement to officially enter politics has caught the interest of many observers in Israel.
In order to clarify some of his intentions I recently conducted the following phone interview with Naftali.
Yoel Meltzer (YM): Following months of political speculation, rumors and short-lived announcements, you finally decided to run for the head of The Jewish Home party (Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi, formerly Mafdal) in the party’s upcoming internal primaries. With all the options open before you, why did you choose this one? After all, wouldn’t it have been easier to simply join the Likud?
Naftali Bennett (NB): The national camp is effectively gone. The Likud used to be the national camp and many from the religious Zionist community, myself included, worked very hard to turn Netanyahu into Prime Minister. However, once he was elected everything changed: Ehud Barak became Defense Minister in charge of Judea and Samaria and then there was the building freeze for 350,000 Israelis. The fundamental problem is that when it matters most, no one pays any attention to us and unfortunately this isn’t going to change.
Moreover, the reason that the big national religious move within the Likud has failed is because fundamentally it’s an attempt to take over a party with an existing DNA in order to instill within it a totally different DNA. This simply won’t succeed.
Therefore what we need to do is to create one big national camp, with a core from The Jewish Home, together with partners who are traditional and secular in order to build the national camp back up again. That’s our only option. Right now all we have is three seats in the Knesset and that’s why there is not one religious Zionist MK in any decision-making forum or in any key position; not Defense Minister, not Foreign Minister, not Finance Minister and not Prime Minister. We don’t even have any member in the shminiya (the inner “kitchen cabinet” of the government). It’s like we’re nothing. We’re not taken into consideration and the only way for this to change is to become a very strong power. I’m talking about 15 seats in the Knesset which will enable us to lead and not only be the gabbai on the sidelines.
YM: Assuming for a moment you become the new chairman of The Jewish Home party, in what direction would you like to lead the party?
NB: The key direction is to look outward and to stop being sectorial. This means not only taking care of who will be a member of the religious council in Hadera but to start dealing with the big issues in Israel such as the large socio-economic gaps in Israel or the very titled character of the Supreme Court or the situation in the Negev and Galilee where we’re losing our national lands. We also need to work on instilling a good strong Jewish-Zionist identity in all of the children in Israel and not only in the religious ones. In other words we need to stop looking inward and start focusing on all of am yisrael.
A leader doesn’t only take care of his own needs; he takes care of the entire nation. So if we want to be leaders we have to have a bold vision of being a leadership party that will take care of all of am yisrael.
YM: Although that sounds great, in the eyes of many The Jewish Home is considered a dying party that historically has been overly concerned with the needs of one sector of the population. This being the case, do you really believe you have the ability to not only resuscitate the party but to transform it into something that it’s never been before?
NB: Either we do a massive transformation and turn into a leading Jewish-Zionist party or we simply become extinct and die. In its heyday the party (originally Mafdal) had 12 seats, then 7 and now 3, while in the polls before this big move the party didn’t even make it past the minimum threshold. In order to survive we need to have a revolution and the revolution is already happening in the field.
We also need to change the way we view ourselves and our role in society. What I mean by this is that we need to stop seeing ourselves as just the “religious ones”. For example, in the army I was a company commander in the Special Forces and I’m currently a major in the reserves in the sayeret matkal but I never considered myself the “religious guy”. Or when I created a company which eventually had 140 employees, I never saw myself as the “religious guy”. I was the CEO, and that was my role.
In politics however we’re always allowing ourselves to be confined to this tiny little drawer. As a result the most senior minister we’re allotted is something like the Minister of Hasbara or Minister of Science. It’s ridiculous! When we talk about navigating this country, especially in light of the values we believe in, we’re simply not there to navigate. So rather than being the ones that lead the country we’re the ones that take care of the religious issues. We need to stop dealing only with the “religious stuff” and start being partners in leading the country.
YM: If I understand correctly, you essentially want to change The Jewish Home from a party that historically tries to “influence” to a party that will start “leading”?
NB: It’s even more than that. Since it’s called The Jewish Home let’s make it a real Jewish home which will include all Jews – religious, traditional and secular. In doing so we’ll turn it from a small and narrow religious home to a broad Jewish-Zionist home. That’s the overall goal.
YM: As you know the pro-Israel Zionist camp, comprised of religious, traditional and secular Israelis, is currently spread across the political map. Therefore do you really believe this powerful group, arguably the largest one in Israel, can be brought under one political umbrella for the good of the country and if so, how?
NB: The first thing that needs to be done is we need to win the primaries that are taking place in a few months and the only way this will happen is if we have tens of thousands of people registering for The Jewish Home. In this light I invite everyone to register as a member of The Jewish Home in order to vote for my group and to help us in fulfilling the vision. To make it easy we set up the website www.israelim.org.il so that people can register on-line. Please keep in mind that if you don’t register before September 8th you can’t vote.
Secondly, after we win the primaries we’ll try to invite people back. Right now there are over ten mandates in the Likud that were brought by religious Zionists. We’ll say to them “what are you doing in the Likud?” We brought the Likud to power, then Ehud Barak and the government “froze us” (the building freeze) for ten months. They simply did this as if we don’t exist. Then Netanyahu declared Ehud Barak’s vision of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria, a vision that goes against everything we believe in. Then when there was a bill to change the structure of the Supreme Court again it was the Likud who brought it down. Likewise when there was a different bill to stop European funding of anti-Israel NGOs again it was the Likud who pulled back.
So at every junction we’re not counted and if we want to be counted we have to be strong. Look at Shas. Although we differ since they mainly take care of one sector while we want to take care of am yisrael, to their credit they have twelve mandates and they are one of the powerful parties in Israel. But since we’re dispersed we’re powerless. That’s the big difference.
YM: You’ve been promoting for the last six months a plan for Israel to annex what is known as “Area C” in Judea and Samaria. How do the secular Zionists that have aligned themselves with you feel about this issue? Do they support you on this?
NB: In terms of the national camp, whether religious or secular, there is overwhelming support for declaring sovereignty over Israeli controlled areas in Judea and Samaria.
By the way we just did a poll and it showed that a majority of all Israelis (not just the national camp) support it; not a huge majority but a majority nevertheless.
YM: In a nutshell, what are the most important issues that need to be addressed in Israel?
NB: The first is to instill a very strong Jewish and Zionist identity in our youth via the education system. Every kid needs to know who Yoni Netanyahu was and who the Rambam (Maimonides) was. Unfortunately this isn’t the case so we have a lot of work to do. The second big issue is to take care of Israel’s periphery because right now there’s a huge and growing socio-economic gap between those living in the center of Israel and those dwelling in the north and south. This is simply a time bomb. The third issue is the big security threat from Iran which has to be dealt with within the next year or two one way or the other.
YM: Thank you for your time and good luck.
Yoel Meltzer is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem. He can be contacted via http://yoelmeltzer.com.