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.

Joshua Mitnick
Naftali Bennett, pictured here outside his home in the affluent Tel Aviv suburb of Raanana, is a hi-tech entrepreneur turned unorthodox leader of Israel's settlement movement.

It's no surprise that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision not to extend the Israeli settlement freeze this week was due in large part to pressure from settlers.

But the man some credit as the driving force behind Mr. Netanyahu's controversial move is not the stereotypical settler. In fact, Naftali Bennett – director general of the umbrella settler leadership group, the Yesha Council – is not even a settler at all.

Sitting on his back patio in the affluent Tel Aviv suburb of Raanana earlier this month, Mr. Bennett demonstrated his ability to shore up political support for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He fed talking points by phone to settler activists at a function of the prime minister's ruling Likud Party, in one of many efforts that culminated in Israel overriding US requests for an extension of the freeze.

"Obama got beaten by Naftali," says Gil Hoffman, a political commentator for the conservative Jerusalem Post. "He won by reminding Netanyahu of his credibility. [The prime minister] realizes that he has a credibility problem and that people don’t trust him, and if he loses his credibility, it's political suicide."

An unorthodox leader to challenge stereotypes

That Bennett doesn’t actually live in an Israeli settlement makes him an unusual figure among the settlers. The movement that has traditionally viewed staking claim to hilltop heartland of the biblical Land of Israel as a personal and national mission.

Bennett’s appointment earlier this year to the helm of the Yesha Council was also unorthodox because he is a technology entrepreneur who became a multimillionaire four years ago when he sold the software company he co-founded for $145 million.

His selection reflects the tensions between two conflicting tendencies in the settler movement, which is often torn between a race to the hilltops and a desire for acceptance by the Israeli mainstream.

The choice of Bennett, is an effort to offset the stereotype that the settlers are an extremist ideological monolith, say analysts.

"It reflects moxie. They’re saying, 'You think were a bunch of fat settlers with big yarmulkes? So we’ll put a skinny high-tech millionaire who lives in Raanana in charge,' " says Mr. Hoffman. "They have tried to make themselves look mainstream and not extremist, and say they are the salt of the earth like everyday Israelis."

Bennett says he is just as focused on Israel proper as the settlements. Indeed, at a time when the settlers worry that Netanyahu’s plan for a Palestinian state will force the dismantling communities in the West Bank, Bennett says his role is reaching out to everyday Israelis to stir sympathy for the setters’ cause.

"I don’t build," he said. "I was brought in to settle among the hearts of the people."

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.

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