Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, August 12, 2020.

{Reposted from the author’s blog}

When I declare my hope that Naftali Bennett, leader of the Yamina Party, becomes the next prime minister of Israel, I face a lot of agreement, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a lot of faces grimacing in scorn for the man. Criticisms include the idea that he has given up his values for applying sovereignty in Judea & Samaria and for reforming the justice system on the alter of populism — talking only about the Corona crisis. Others accuse him of trying to impose religion into the secular school system when he was Education Minister. Let us hear him in his own words and see how he related to issues raised by the audience on his English-language Zoom talk on the evening of Feb 11. I have slightly edited the material to make it flow more smoothly and I have shortened it to reduce repetitiveness so it will take you less time to read than to listen to the actual session.

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Naftali Bennett opens with this statement:

These elections are the first time I am presenting myself as a candidate for Prime Minister of Israel.and I do this after serious thought. In the past I thought that Netanyahu was the right person to lead Israel. I still very much appreciate much of what he has done. I no longer think he should be one to lead the country… and I think I’ll do a much better job of getting Israel out of this chaos: fighting COVID, finding 400,000 jobs and uniting the people. I just don’t think he is going to be able to do any of this…. When I look right and left to other contenders, who are good people as well — Gideon Saar, Yair Lapid — I just don’t think they currently have the competence or the qualities necessary to lead the Jewish State.

Israel is now enduring one of its most chaotic moments ever. Things are grossly mismanaged; almost everything you touch makes no sense. Every single aspect of life here: the education system, for example, is a farce… the fact that for 10 months Ben Gurion Airport was open without testing (and importing the virus in massive amounts, with mutations and variants of the virus creating this terrible third wave) and now suddenly in a kind of manic-depressive move, where they swing to the other extreme of shutting down Israel totally, This is crazy, leaving thousands of Israelis “jailed” abroad, and it does not make sense.

All the mismanagement of Israel over the past years has culminated in this crisis. We have to fix it.

It’s not only about Corona. We are in our fourth elections and it’s not because of Corona; it’s because of mismanagement. We haven’t had a budget for two years, not because of Corona but because of lack of leadership. The Negev is being taken over by some Bedouin criminals and terror; it has nothing to do with COVID. The whole housing situation … has nothing to do with COVID. The very cumbersome and “fat” public service system in Israel, generally of low quality and very expensive, and the burden on the private sector that is becoming less and less bearable — these are not about COVID.

We need to pull Israel out of the muddle and I have concrete plans for how to do this.

Before we talk about Judea & Samaria, I believe we need to exert our sovereignty, starting in the Galilee, Lod, the Negev, Bnei Brak — we need to apply our sovereignty within our own cities and this is not being done. And we need to do it. We can do this very quickly. What we need is competent, solid leadership, we need to put politics aside for awhile, put our egos aside as much as possible (we are politicians after all) and bring Israel forward. That is why I am asking for your support.

I want to make it clear that I have not changed my principles by one iota. I will never give up one centimeter of Eretz Yisrael, ever! We need to reform the judicial system; we need to strengthen Jewish identity. I see no contradiction between these values and what I think is the most vital and urgent task of the moment, which is to bring back jobs to Israel. It is tough. I am so obsessive about jobs because the top mission of the Jewish people is to allow people to make a living with dignity. As a religious person I am attacked and asked why I am talking about earning a living? I am proud of it. That is exactly what religious Zionism needs to do. Look at the Torah: everything is about making a living. Avraham went to Egypt because there was hunger. Yaakov to Egypt. Why was Boaz granted the great honour that his greatgrandchild was King David? During the time of a huge crisis in Eretz Yisrael, one leader looked after his own needs while Boaz took responsibility and fed people with bread. That is what the Scroll of Ruth is about. As religious Zionists, we need to be at the forefront of helping all of Am Yisrael — it is not at the expense of Eretz Yisrael; on the contrary.

This introduction was followed by questions. I am sure there were many more equally important questions for which there was insufficient time. But here are those that were asked and answered:

Q: What are you going to do to prevent kids from being out of school for so long again?

Bennett did not immediately address that question. He felt it was important to set the context first, describing what was wrong with the way the COVID crisis was being (mis)managed and give his plan, something that would prevent the need for schools to close down ever again. Here is what he said:

The first thing, and I say this very carefully after deep research, we need to clean Israel of COVID and it is much easier and feasible than one might think. If we don’t clean up the country, then when we open up education, we will see a fourth wave. I am an avid supporter of the vaccinations, but that is not enough: First, because about a third of Israelis will not be vaccinated for the foreseeable future (kids under 16 and other individual issues preventing vaccination) and with the new variant we are seeing kids get infected at a higher rate and some kids will have serious symptoms about which we do not know much – is it for life? for a year? – and that is risk I don’t want to take. I am talking about brain fog, cognitive impairments, muscle pain. The percentage is low but when you multiply this by the number of kids in the country, this can be a significant number. So we are between a rock and a hard place. That is why we have to move to the zero-COVID model.  Israel is not the worst country but we are one of the worst. We have more days of closure than any other country, a very high per capita rate of infection and we are in the top quarter re deaths per capita. Our economy took a serious hit. We see that management has been bad at everything except for the vaccinations.

Second, the vaccinations may be bypassed by new mutations. History teaches us that there will be a new variant that bypasses the vaccination and that is why our whole strategy can crash. We need to do what the best countries have done and we can. People argue that Israelis are not obedient and that is nonsense. Every country has its own problems. The only difference between those that succeeded and us is that the former had very competent leadership. We need to control the points of entry into the country and test everyone who comes in. It can be compared to the terror threat of fifty years ago. Terrorists blew up airplanes so Israel designed a very good system whereby you go through a series of tests before getting on a plane, and there have been no hijackings for 50 years. We need to let people in and not let the virus in. That is easy.

Within Israel, we need to set up regions and instead of focussing on red areas we need to clean things up and we can do that with massive testing; today we can do 2 mllion tests a day. We can clean up the entire Galillee, for instance, within 3-4 days after which it will be declared clean and anyone testing positive will go to one of those “Bennett” hotels and then everything opens up in that area. If there is a new infection, we very quickly clamp down on it. People in red areas will not be able to enter green areas until their own areas become green. This gives a huge incentive to take responsibility for yourself — if you act well, you will be rewarded.

In terms of the education system, even within the current incorrect conceptualization for dealing with Corona, this could have been a beautiful year. I put out a plan a few months ago for education out of doors, of doing hikes in Eretz Yisrael. The academic loss is not the problem. It is not a disaster if for one year kids learned less. They could volunteer in open areas, they could learn the history of their cities, they could do hikes, do activities in the park. Israel has 300 sunny days a year and on the cloudy/rainy days they could stay home and do Zoom. It is so easy. It is this sorts of solution I would apply immediately.

Here is a promise – and I rarely make promises – if I become prime minister, within about 14 days from the moment I become prime minister, almost 50% of the population of Israel will be in clean zones and their lives will be restored almost like before. Almost – there will still need to be various degrees of caution and within a few more weeks we will also clean up Bnai Brak and Tamra. The point is that not everyone will be punished because of these areas.

Q: How will you represent the people who would vote for you?

It has been my modus operendi in everything I have done, I believe in walking around — going around the field. I was criticized during the last Gaza war for going around and meeting soldiers. Heck! Of course I am going to meet soldiers! As Minister of Education, every week I would do a surprise visit. Here is a story – on my first week as Minister of Education I take a tour in the north. I come to a school and there is a long line of boys and girls, singing with flags, there is folk dancing and at the end a 16 YO boy said: “Minister Bennett, we love our school, the learning methods are advanced.” I then went to my car and that same kid ran up to give me a little envelope in which there is a letter that says, “Bennett, everything I said was a total lie. I hate this school. Horrible school. Bad teachers.” That is why I believe in bypassing everyone in the hierarchy and talking to the people. By listening to them you can actually learn a lot.

Q: You say that one of your major priorities is providing jobs. We have in the country communities for whom working is not a priority for them. What are your thoughts about getting them into the work force? It’s a strain on the budget and on the health system. It’s an unfair balance.

It is true that there is a large proportion of the Haredi community that does not work and does not pay taxes. So here is my plan: It is a bit unfair but smart. Some of you are not going to like it because it is counterintuitive. The Haredim do not serve in the army and many do not work. What has gained a lot of traction over the past years is the fact that they do not serve in the army. Some have built careers over this issue, such as Yair Lapid and now Avigdor Liberman is building a career around this — bash the Haredim, they do not serve. Should they serve? Yes, but if we sever the connection between army service and working we can solve one of the two. From my perspective, it is much more urgent that they join the work force than the army.

Here is my plan, that is 180 degrees opposite of what Lapid and Liberman say – today the law says that if a Haredi man wants an exemption from the army he needs to stay in the Yeshiva until the age of 24. and it was raised to 26. They are afraid of the army so the Israeli government compels them to stay in the Yeshiva till the age of 26 by which time they have big families, won’t get good jobs, won’t get an education. What I propose is that for the next 8 years, let the Haredim be exempt of army service at the age of 21. Some will stay in the Yeshiva and that is fine, but the great majority are going to go out, get a quick education and start working and pay taxes and not be a burden on us. There is no cost to this. Is it fair? No. But it is smart. I served in Sayeret Matkal, my kids are going to serve. It is not fair that many Haredim will work rather than serve, but it will solve the problem and that is exactly the sort of creative approach nobody else is prepared to do. I would do it for 8 years and I think the social dynamic will be that many of them will want their children to be better educated.

Q: How would you apply sovereignty to Bnei Brak and other communities who have shown distain for the government of Israel and are not complying with the rules of Israel?

I would be fair and decent to everyone while applying the law to everyone. Netanyahu’s profound mistake was to cave in to the Haredim. …That creates an opening for others to say: “if they are going to break the rules, I am going to break the rules”. (And there was a lack of personal example from the leadership of Israel, not only Netanyahu.)

If you are decent and fair toward the Haredim, you have the moral standing to apply the rule of law. But you also need to use common sense. It is not common sense to send tanks into Bnei Brak — instead of focusing on trying to arrest a religious leader in Bnei Brak, let’s clean up the cities that are willing to clean themselves up. Then, whoever is living in a red city will not be able to enter a green city and very quickly they will go to their own leadership and demand cleaning up Bnei Brak.

I view the Haredim as potential partners but they are not owners of the government. The owners of the government are the citizens of Israel. We can make the changes even with the Haredi parties in a coalition. It requires deft political skills. The Haredim are not the only pressure group in Israel – there are monopolies, very powerful unions that can shut down electricity or ports, so if you create the message that you are not caving in to anyone, it reinforces itself. Unfortunately, the current leadership caves in to everyone and is not really governing.

Q: What is your plan for affordable housing?

The current housing crisis in un-Zionistic. It is profoundly unfair that young families that want to start their lives don’t have a chance if they don’t have rich parents who can help. Here is what we need to do: Break up the monopoly whereby the state of Israel holds 90% of the land.

If tomorrow, one company would own 100% of the bread, the prices would rise immediately. So we need to break up the land monopoly and nobody has been brave enough to do it yet. But that is something that I do. I break up monopolies. I broke up the cement monopoly – Nesher, a 90-YO monopoly – they had a lot of power and nobody was brave enough to break it up. I broke it up in 2014. Created competition. Prices went down. There was another monopoly – Tnuva – that had a monopoly over yellow cheese. I was Economy Ministry for just 1 1/2 years. I brought in imports in yellow cheeses and prices went down about 40%. I broke up a third cartel (not a monopoly) — since the establishment of the State of Israel, no private university was allowed. There were colleges, but not universities with research. I brought in the first one – Reichman University (formerly called IDC). Against everyone.

We need to break up the land monopoly and smoothen the construction planning process. It is crazy in Israel. You cannot get anything done here. So that is what I would do. I would try to achieve the legislation required within the first 100 days. I have a very strong 100-day plan and I have serious teams working on education, housing, economy, mostly domestic issues. What you do not get done in the first 100 days, sometimes will never get done. The most important thing I want to take care of is cutting down bureaucracy and regulations. And we need to come with a bulldozer and just clearn it up. I am passionate about this because I was a businessman and I know how government can ruin business.

He added a note:

You guys are paying my salary. I am here to serve you. I am your servant. I am a public servant and folks forget that and it is wrong. We are going to fix it, with God’s help.

Q: I heard that Israel pays 25% less for the education of an Arab child than a Jewish child. Is this true and what are you going to do about if it is?

The answer is no, but…. when I became Education Minister, I looked at the numbers. It turns out that the government itself does not discriminate. But, there are many additional supplemental programmes, such as afternoon robotics, and more. Schools that want to take advantage of these opportunties need to apply. Then I found out that schools in the periphery, mostly Arab schools, but not only, are less acquianted with the process for applying for these programmes. So what happened is exactly what you said – schools in Herzeliya, for example, knew how to do it and they were connected, so their kids got more. On top of that, beyond what the government itself gives every kid and beyond these supplemental programmes, there is the factor of the local municipalities. If it is a wealthy solid municipality like Tel Aviv, yes, the local munipality adds a lot, but poorer ones do not.

What did I do about this? I am not going to tell a municipality not to invest in its own kids, but on the government side, I took all these supplemental bubbles and created one large bucket and poured all the money into one bucket and distributed it more fairly to the weaker areas. Here is the bottom line: when I entered I learned that a child’s future prospects depends on where he or she was born. The child born in Herzeliya will get a much better education and have a much brighter future than the one born in Shlomi.

I am a free market person, but the basis of free market is that everyone has an equal opportunity and what I just described is horrible. So what I did first was to focus on improving the core studies that had been neglected in the peripheral areas. In the year before I entered the ministry, no kids did 5 units of math in Shlomi, Ofakim, Hura. They are not less smart than kids in Ramat Hasharon, just nobody gave them the opportunity. We doubled the rate of 5-unit math in Arab villages, in the periphery, in Kfar Habad because that is what I believe in. It is about telling those kids that we believe in you. If you are willing to put in the effort and work hard, we will help you. And we did. And we now see those kids in hi-tech and in elite units in the army. I promist to continue this policy of giving an equal opportunity to every kid in Israel. As prime minister I will take care of every kid, whether they are secular or Haredi, Jewish or Arab. They are all my children. whether they vote for me or not, they are my children and they are going to get an equal opportunity. What they do with it that is up to them.

Naftali Bennett ended with this message:

We are fighting for Israel. Fighting for a million people who need jobs, for those kids fading away in front of Zoom, for thousands of people caring longterm effects of COVID — because of incompetence of this leadership. We need to change the leadership. I don’t hate Bibi like others do. I respect him. but it is time to say, “Thank-you Bibi and hand it over to Bennett” and together we will do a good job for Am Yisrael. We have an amazing team, with Ayelet Shaked and Alon Davidi – the mayor of Sderot who took a city that was in deep in crisis seven years ago, and amidst all the Kasam missiles from Gaza, he was so successful that now many young families are looking for homes in Sderot. We need young energetic entrepreneurial people. We don’t need more recycled politicans that move from party to party. We need social entrepreneurs, businessmen, people who actually know how to do stuff.

That is what I like about Yamina and Naftali Bennett – they talk about doing and when they were in positions in which they could do, they did. They have concrete plans and do not try to sell a fantasy. They show how they intend to achieve their goals. Also, do you notice that when Bennett is asked a question he actually answers it concretely and does not go into flowery shallow descriptions of creating a utopia on Earth?

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Sheri Oz, owner of www.israeldiaries.com, is a retired family therapist exploring mutual interactions between politics and Israeli society.