The Dangerous Man Who Dreams of Leading Israel

Why American Jews Should Reject Naftali Bennett

Running on Empty: Naftali Bennett is a man with much ambition.
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Running on Empty: Naftali Bennett is a man with much ambition.

By Leonard Fein

Published April 26, 2014.
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He may one day be Prime Minister of Israel. He has multiple qualifications. He’s a multi-millionaire (software), smart, young (42), charming — and ambitious. In the meantime, as a member of the Netanyahu cabinet, he is the Minister of Economy, Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs and Minister of Religious Services of the State of Israel . He is also and not at all incidentally chairman of Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) political party. That, and his expressed views on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and on the fate of the West Bank, make him, de facto, the leader of what my friend Steven M. Cohen calls “Dark Zionism.”

What are those views?

“The Israel-Palestinian conflict is insoluble, and most Israelis couldn’t care less about it any more.”

“There is not going to be a Palestinian state within the tiny land of Israel,” he told The Guardian just before the last elections. “It’s just not going to happen.”

“If we hand over [the West Bank] to the Arabs, life here will be miserable and in constant conflict for the next 200 years,” he added. “I want the world to understand that a Palestinian state means no Israeli state. That’s the equation.”

His plan? To annex most of the West Bank, even in the face of international opposition, which, he says, is the “result of ignorance.” He has proposed the unilateral annexation of Area C, the 60% of the West Bank that contains all Jewish settlements and is currently under Israeli military control. Palestinians living in Area C could either take Israeli citizenship or relocate to the Palestinian-governed 40% of the West Bank.

His name is Naftali Bennett. Before running for the Knesset he was CEO of the Council of Judea and Samaria (Yesha, otherwise known as the West Bank) and created a non-profit organization, MyIsrael, which connected the broader Israeli public with his views of Zionism and of Jewish values. He holds a law degree from the Hebrew University and lives, very comfortably, in the tony Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana with his wife and four children.

He understands that the international community would strongly oppose his plan. “I don’t accept it’s illegal under international law, but I agree the world would not recognize [annexation]. The world hasn’t recognized Jerusalem as our capital, or the Western Wall as part of Israel, so this would just be another area that the world doesn’t recognize.”

Bennett generated huge controversy a while back when he said he personally would refuse orders to evacuate settlements or outposts in the West Bank while on reserve army duty. “If I receive an order to evict a Jew from his house and expel him, personally, my conscience wouldn’t allow it,” he told Israel’s Channel 2. “But I wouldn’t publicly call for disobeying orders.”

He backtracked after a storm of criticism, although he told a rally before the elections that all political parties should sign a pledge never to evict Jews from their homes. And that plainly included their homes in the towns and hilltops of the West Bank.

In a revealing article in The New Yorker (January 21, 2013) David Remnick quotes Bennett: “The Israeli-Palestinian issue is something we can talk about for ever, but it’s never going anywhere. I can waste the next four years babbling about Israel and the Palestinians, or the alternative is to say this is insoluble, so let’s work out a modus vivendi with our neighbors the best we can. For too many years, Israel has been taken hostage by this conflict.” And: “We will never agree to give up a unified Jerusalem… we will never accept an agreement based on the 1967 lines.”

According to Remnick, Bennett holds “an unswerving conviction that the Palestinian Arabs of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem might as well relinquish their hopes for a sovereign state. The Green Line [which demarcates the occupied territories from Israel proper] has no meaning, and only a friyer, a sucker, would think otherwise.” As one of his slick campaign ads says, “There are certain things that most of us understand will never happen: ‘The Sopranos’ are not coming back for another season…and there will never be a peace plan with the Palestinians.” If Bennett becomes Prime Minister someday — and his ambition is as plump and glaring as a harvest moon — he intends to annex most of the West Bank and let Arab cities like Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin be “self-governing” but “under Israeli security.” “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state,” he says of the Palestinians. No more negotiations, “no more illusions.”

So the lingering question is simply which side — or is it perhaps both sides? — is seized by illusions? And, since in the context of the real world, illusions can feel therapeutic, how do we persuade people to deal instead with the ever so complex reality? How do American Jews, who in their overwhelming majority reject Naftali Bennett’s suffocating views, effectively declare him a persona non grata?

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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