The unorthodox Israeli settlement leader - who isn't even a settler
Naftali Bennett, who lives in an affluent suburb of Tel Aviv, is a driving force behind Netanyahu's decision not to extend the Israeli settlement freeze.
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"I don’t build," he said. "I was brought in to settle among the hearts of the people."Skip to next paragraph
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Netanyahu's former right-hand man
Bennett's political acumen developed as chief of staff for Netanyahu from 2006 to 2008, when he was the leader of a party with just 13 seats in the parliament – a sort of political wilderness. During that time, he oversaw Netanyahu's election campaign to reclaim the leadership of the Likud party in 2006. The settler leader also helped Netanyahu, who had served as prime minister in the late 1990s, prepare for the 2009 general election that put him in office for a second term.
Bennett says he prefers working within the political system rather than organizing public demonstrations. One such effort under way is a campaign to register settlers as Likud members, thereby boosting their influence within Israel's ruling party.
But even as Bennett speaks fondly of the days when he and Mr. Netanyahu were of "the same mind," he says he is now "disappointed" with the prime minister’s move toward the political center by adopting a two-state solution through negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Bennett says he isn’t convinced that the Palestinian Authority wants true peace with Israel. Instead, he fears that a peace agreement would be considered by the Palestinians as merely the first step in a strategy to eventually overrun Israel.
A 'shield' against Iran
When Bennett speaks about the importance of the settlements, he speaks about geography and security while skipping religious ideology espoused by the most fervent settlers. Though religiously observant, he said he considers the West Bank mountain range to be Israel's "shield" against militant Islam – ultimately Iran. Every new house, he says, reinforces that bulwark.
"If we lay down our shield, that means there will be a direct line between Tehran and Tel Aviv – then it’s game over," he says. "This is stuff that Bibi [Netanyahu] knows… What is it that makes him feel that peace is about to come if we give up our land?"
Bennett says that recent growth of the Palestinian economy demonstrates the potential to strengthen what he describes as a de facto "coexistence on the ground." To promote the Palestinian economy advocates removing more movement restrictions in the West Bank, yet another departure with settler leaders who normally say such a move is too big a security risk.
VIP tours with gourmet cheese
In recent weeks, Bennett has helped spearhead a Yesha campaign to bring Israeli opinion makers on VIP tours of the settlements. Newspaper editors and broadcast anchors are served gourmet cheese at boutique settler wineries and introduced to local residents.
The tours are a success, up to a certain point, says one participant. Dror Ben Yemini, a columnist and the Op-Ed editor of the daily Maariv newspaper, said the visit did indeed stir empathy for settlers, who were very welcoming.
But the trip did not succeed in changing his political conviction that expanding the settlements is leading Israel in the direction of becoming a binational Jewish Arab state, he says.