Latest update: January 10th, 2013
Naftali Bennett’s parents, Jim and Myrna, made Aliyah from America in 1967, and settled in the port city of Haifa. Naftali, one of three brothers, was born on March 25, 1972. He served in the elite IDF units of Sayeret Matkal and Maglan as a company commander and still serves in the reserves, at the rank of Major.
I asked Bennett if he would have to give up his American citizenship, should he become Israel’s prime minister.
“I’m not becoming prime minister quite yet,” Bennett said, laughing out loud, “but, obviously, I’ll follow the law, if I’ll need to forfeit it, like Netanyahu has done. I’m not even sure who needs to do it – a minister, a prime minister – I’ll do whatever is needed.”
(For the record, current US policy requires that a dual citizen renounce their American citizenship if they are serving in a “policy level position” in a foreign government. The same holds true on the Israeli side. Law professor Daphne Barak Erez, born to Israeli parents in the U.S., was named Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel in 2012, which required that she give up her foreign citizenship.)
In 1999, Bennett co-founded and was the CEO of “Cyota,” a hi-tech company making anti-fraud software which he sold in 2005 to RSA Security for $145 million. He is likely the richest politician in Israel – well ahead of Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Regional Development Silvan Shalom, who is worth about $40 million.
Perhaps because of his own experience with vigorous American Capitalism, Naftali Benett is in favor of cutting the 40-year-old umbilical cord that still connects Israel to the American Treasury.
“Today, U.S. military aid is roughly 1 percent of Israel’s economy,” Bennett says. “I think, generally, we need to free ourselves from it. We have to do it responsibly, since I’m not aware of all the aspects of the budget, I don’t want to say ‘let’s just give it up,’ but our situation today is very different from what it was 20 and 30 years ago. Israel is much stronger, much wealthier, and we need to be independent.”
When I asked him for his opinion about the nominations of Senator John Kerry for Secretary of State and former Senator Chuck Hagel for Defense, his response was consistent with the former statement:
“I think it’s none of our business in Israel to intervene in American domestic decisions. President Obama gave us his word most vehemently that he would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon – he said it several times over the past year. He said he has Israel’s back. So I hope and trust that President Obama will follow through on these very powerful commitments.”
In 2006, a wealthy man, Naftali Bennett decided to start giving back. He began serving as Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff, when the Likud was still in the opposition. He ran Netanyahu’s primary campaign in 2007 and continued to serve him through 2008.
Rumor has it that Bennett and Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, are not on good terms, to the point where Mrs. Netanyahu—who is as influential in her husband’s decision making as a political wife can be—will put her foot down when it comes to taking the former chief of staff on as coalition partner.
Gilat Bennett, Naftali’s wife, told Channel 2 News earlier this year that she could understand Sara Netanyahu, and empathized with her need to have a voice in the prime minister’s career, and with her desire to show that he “belonged to [her], too.”
In 2010, Bennett, in his role as Director General of the Yesha Council (the coalition of all the Jewish settlements east of the “green line”), was in an all out war against Netanyahu over the government imposed settlement construction freeze. The two are not on friendly terms, although Bennett insists on being cordial and even compliments his old boss now and then. Bibi’s comments about Bennett are outright icy.
I cited TV host Nissim Mishal, on whose show Bennett was ambushed quite crudely into stating that he would refuse an order to evict a Jew from his home—which turned into the media brouhaha of the week, earning Bennett ample condemnations from his enemies, and a 2-3 seat bump in the polls. On the same show, Mishal also suggested (“barked” would better describe his tone of questioning) that Netanyahu hated Bennett so much, there was no chance he would include him in is government.
“We’re going to get along quite well,” Bennett told me. “I worked with Prime Minister Netanyahu for a couple of years, I like the guy. Yes, there are tensions, because we disagree on some stuff, but it’s nothing that 12, 14, or 15 Knesset mandates won’t solve. He’ll get over it…”
I asked Bennett why, in his opinion, the Jewish Home appeals to so many secular Israelis (in recent polls, between 40 and 45 percent of Bennett’s supporters have identified themselves as non-religious).
“People are fed up with the various camps, they want to unite,” the candidate answered in a sharp tone. “They’re fed up with the discourse of hate. They don’t want to hate Haredim, they don’t want to hate the religious, they don’t want to hate the secular, they want to get together and solve problems.”
He added: “That’s what I think is so attractive about us. We’re primarily focused on the younger generation, and I’m very happy that the younger generation is less susceptible to hate rhetoric.”
Bennett’s youth revolution at the Jewish Home party was stunning. In a period of just about three months, Bennett managed to infuse a spirit of youth that resurrected what had been the tiny dual remnants of the religious right – Jewish home and its twin, National Union.
The process wasn’t problem-free by any stretch. National Union ousted through dubious maneuvering two of its major vote getters, MKs Michael Ben Ari and Aryeh Eldad, who are running on an independent list dubbed Power for Israel.
Inside Jewish Home, heir of the ancient NRP (created in 1956 through the merger of Mizrachi and Hapoel HaMizrachi), the party’s traditional apparatus was overwhelmed by the onslaught of Bennett’s new, imaginative and dazzlingly ambitious drive to capture the leadership. It is certainly also a measure of just how frail and decrepit the old party had been, that this outsider, in just three months, defeated the old guard’s candidate Zevulun Orlev by a 67 to 32 margin.
I asked Bennett if he thought there was a chance of brining Eldad and Ben Ari back into the fold.
“Right now, we’re two different parties, and from a legal standpoint we’re running separately. So for now it is what it is,” he quipped.
The Jewish Home platform economic section talks about a “free economy with compassion.” In practice, this means not raising taxes on the middle class, but at the same time they want the safety net for the poor to remain intact, improve education, and maintain military readiness. With a deficit of several billion dollars, how is he planning to do all that?
“The reality is that we have a big deficit. We’re going to have to cut the defense budget, which has doubled over the past decade from $8 billion to $16.4 billion a year,” Bennett recites, then delivers the punchline: “Contrary to what many think, some military threats have actually been reduced. Today’s Egyptian army has no offensive capability—it’s in dire straits. Syria is in no position to send forces into Israel. We can cut there.”
He continues: “We need to free up the economy from the monopolies that are choking it. That will grow the revenue. And we need to free the economy from the strong unions that defend only the richest workers. All these actions will allow Israel’s economy to boom.”
Last month, while Israel’s nurses were on strike, protesting their miserable wages (an RN with decades of seniority earns less than $35 thousand a year), the media revealed that the longshoremen’s union members were averaging $76 thousand, an astonishing salary for manual laborers.
The longshoremen in Israel have the same feisty reputation as, say, the Teamsters in America. I asked Bennett what he would do to break their monopoly.
“What you have to do is create competition,” Bennett said. “And then they’ll be much more efficient and that will reduce the cost of all our products. Because everything is way too expensive in Israel.”
“Now, if you do that – they’ll fight you,” he continues. “So we need to communicate with the Israeli people, explain the problem. Unfortunately, Netanyahu did not follow through on that, nor will Shelly Yachimovich ever do it, because they elected her. The Jewish Home will strive to be a major influence in freeing up the economy.”
Naftali Bennett has been a zealous defender of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, a position that, as I mentioned earlier, has made him many enemies, including his old boss, Netanyahu. I posed to him the idea that the reason the prime minister has been talking about the two-state solution has nothing to do with his commitment to Jewish settlements and everything to do with his acute concern with Iran’s nuclear program.
Simply put, Netanyahu is not going to allow a few thousand settlers to cause Israel to lose favor with the current White House, so that when the time comes to attack the Iranian nuclear plants, Israel would not be standing alone.
“If the time comes to choose between American support and some acquiescence in the area of removing some settlements – what would be your choice?”
“I don’t buy this question,” Bennett responds quickly. “I reject the equation that we have to give up parts of Israel in order to buy quiet. If we follow that path, in twenty years we’ll have nothing left in Israel. It’s not a logical course of action.”
“We need to do what’s necessary for a strong Israel,” he urges. “I assert that handing over more land to our enemies would make Israel a feeble and miserable place. It would bring home the bloodshed and strife between us and the Arabs, just like what’s going on in Gaza—a never ending war—while we have peace and quiet today in Judea and Samaria.”
He promises: “I’ll do everything in my power to reverse the mistaken policies of establishing a Palestinian state within the Land of Israel.”
Finally, is he a career politician, or is he just planning to do this for a few years and do other things in the future?
“As long as I can serve my country, I’ll continue doing it,” he says. “As long as I feel that I’m making a positive impact on the Jewish nation, I’ll do everything in my ability to contribute.”
What’s his vision for the Jewish Home party?
“In the upcoming elections, we want to be the biggest partner for Netanyahu in his next government. It’s a very interesting election, because the next prime minister has already been determined, it’s going to be Netanyahu. The question remains, is it going to be a left-wing coalition of Tzipi Livni, Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna and Netanyahu – or Jewish Home and Netanyahu. That’s the biggest question in this election, and I’m determined to become the biggest and most influential coalition partner.”
About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.
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