Israel's Naftali Bennett: Waiting in the (right) wings

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett spoke May 14 during a reception hosted by the Orthodox Union in Jerusalem ahead of the opening of the new US embassy in that city.
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The English-speaking son of American immigrant parents, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett has carved out a niche politically by outflanking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the right. A veteran of Israel’s most prestigious commando unit, he became a multimillionaire at 33 after selling his high-tech company. He traces his path to politics back to his anger after fighting in the last Lebanon war in 2006, for which, he says, Israel was ill-prepared. He served as Mr. Netanyahu’s chief of staff for two years, then moved to the right, staking out hard-line positions on Hezbollah, African refugees in Israel, and Israel’s activist Supreme Court. He opposes a two-state accommodation with the Palestinians and makes no apologies for Israel’s policies toward Hamas and Gaza. Avraham Sela, a professor of international relations at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says Mr. Bennett “keeps pushing to the right and for a stricter policy toward the Palestinians because this is his way to corner Netanyahu.” Political commentator Jacob Bardugol says, “You see Bennett go one way on an issue and Netanyahu usually follows, because Bennett is Netanyahu’s true north star.” 

Coming tomorrow, a profile of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar.

Why We Wrote This

Mainstream leaders on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides of their national conflict at least pay lip service to the two-state solution. In this first of two profiles, we look at key hard-line leaders who do not.

After Islamic militants in Gaza fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel last week, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, posted a sarcastic update on his English-language Twitter account.

“For the sake of Israel’s armchair critics, here’s an official update this morning from the local Israeli municipality neighboring [the] Gaza Strip: A rocket hit a kindergarten. No children were there at the time. Studies will take place as usual today. Now preach [to] us,” he tweeted

The next night Mr. Bennett, the son of American immigrants to Israel who is open about his ambition to one day succeed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, slept in one of the Israeli border communities. More rockets were fired, and he was awoken by the same sirens and dashes to shelters that are an intermittent part of life for local residents.

Why We Wrote This

Mainstream leaders on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides of their national conflict at least pay lip service to the two-state solution. In this first of two profiles, we look at key hard-line leaders who do not.

He emerged from the mostly sleepless night with tough words for Israel’s regional arch enemy, Iran, describing it as the “octopus” whose tentacles control Gaza – as well as Lebanon and Syria.

The rocket attacks were launched several weeks into a series of deadly clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers at the border fence between Israel and Gaza. The violence and disconnect between neighboring foes living vastly different realities has made an especially tough political atmosphere worse.

In Israel, Bennett is among the more influential leaders opposing accommodation with the Palestinians through a two-state solution, instead favoring partial annexation of the West Bank combined with a form of autonomy for areas with a Palestinian majority.

The modern Orthodox resident of a leafy Tel Aviv suburb traces his path to politics to his experience in the 2006 Lebanon war. As a reserve officer in an elite Israeli army unit hunting down Hezbollah missile launchers in Lebanon, he says he felt increasingly frustrated by the futility of the task and the riskiness of the missions he and his men were sent on.

“I can tell you it’s an impossible task because they are embedded among homes, and it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, only there are 130,000 needles,” he tells the Monitor in an interview.

Bennett emerged from the war overcome with grief – a close friend was killed in the fighting – and furious at the army and government, which he believed had deeply misread the situation in Lebanon. It was a turning point in his life that coincided with the then-recent sale of his hi-tech company, which had made him a multi-millionaire at the age of 33.

His next move was now clear: He would go into politics to try to fix the deadly mistakes he saw in person.

On Netanyahu's team

He joined then opposition leader Mr. Netanyahu’s team as chief of staff, serving under him for two years. Next, as director-general of the council of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, he was an outspoken opponent of settlement freezes and any notion of a Palestinian state.

Tacking even further right than his political mentor Netanyahu, Bennett went on to helm the Jewish Home party, the rebranded National Religious Party, and led it to its best electoral performance.

The party has since lost some seats in parliament, but the charismatic Bennett is still considered the right-wing heir apparent to Netanyahu. His brash message in the last elections, “No more apologizing,” criticized Israeli leftists for purportedly valuing Palestinian human rights over Israel and its security.

For Bennett, outflanking Netanyahu from the right has been key to building his standing.

“You see Bennett go one way on an issue, and Netanyahu usually follows, because Bennett is Netanyahu’s true north star,” says Jacob Bardugol, a political commentator and host of one of the country’s most popular radio news shows.

That pattern seems to fit whether it is policy on Gaza, the status of African refugees in Israel, or curbing the power of an activist Israeli Supreme Court.

For example Bennett, a member of the security cabinet, coined the name for a doctrine since adopted by the government called “Hezbollah Equals Lebanon.” It means Israel holds the government in Beirut responsible for any military actions taken by the powerful Shiite militia.

“This way Nasrallah knows,” Bennett says, referring to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, “that if Hezbollah lets loose on us, Nasrallah will be branded as the destroyer of Lebanon instead of the protector of Lebanon."

Palestinian plan

Bennett is firmly against the establishment of a Palestinian state, arguing it would be an “irreversible mistake.” Instead he proposes annexing the areas of the West Bank currently under Israeli control and implementing what he refers to as a “Marshall Plan” for “autonomy on steroids” for the areas run by the Palestinian Authority. That would include, according to his plan, easier freedom of movement of people and goods through land ports, tourism zones, industrial centers, and the removal of all internal Israeli military roadblocks in the West Bank.

Last year in an interview with the BBC show “Hard Talk” he said, "No one in the Arab world ever accepted the notion of a Palestinian nation. They wouldn't grant them a state. We've granted them a state in Gaza and they turned it into Afghanistan in the heart of Israel. We aren't about to make that mistake again."

"The bottom line," he tells the Monitor, "is I really think is there is no great solution here. I am open to other ideas, like a Jordanian confederation."

Avraham Sela, a professor of international relations at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says Bennett “keeps pushing to the right and for a stricter policy toward the Palestinians because this is his way to corner Netanyahu.”

“Netanyahu cannot afford to let Bennett be more patriotic than him,” he says, “and that patriotism is translated and interpreted as repression of the Palestinians and keeping the left at bay.”

Leadership style

Bennett, who like Netanyahu is fluent in English, is a media-savvy presence in cable news station interviews. Sometimes he appears like a debate club president, touting his unapologetic stance, smiling when he gets a point in during an interview.

And like Netanyahu, he enjoys the special status of having served in the Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli army’s premier special forces unit, which conducts reconnaissance missions deep behind enemy lines.

Says Ofer Ogash, who served with Bennett in the army: “From the time we were young officers he has known how to fix his sights on a goal and then make it happen.”

Commentary from the Israeli right is glowing.

“He is the only one in the political constellation on the right poised to take over as prime minister one day. He’s made of the right stuff, he is calculated but responsible,” says Uzi Baruch, editor of Arutz Shevah (Channel Seven), a right-wing news site.

Mr. Baruch describes Bennett as an affable straight shooter who, because of his wealth, is impervious to corruption. And, despite Bennett’s pronouncements on settlements and Palestinian statehood, Baruch says he is not an extremist who would expel Palestinians from the West Bank.

“He realizes Israel cannot bus Palestinians to Jordan, that we have to find a way to live together,” he says.

Coming tomorrow, a profile of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar.

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