“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.”