By Bret Stephens, WSJ Updated Jan. 9, 2015 6:55 p.m. ET
It’s election season in Israel, and so far the most talked-about campaign ad features an Orthodox politician in an unorthodox role. In a YouTube video that quickly went viral, Naftali Bennett plays a fashionably bearded Tel Aviv hipster with a compulsion to say sorry—especially when he’s the one being wronged.
A waitress spills coffee on him: He begs her forgiveness. His car gets rear-ended: He steps out to tell the offending driver how sorry he is. He sits on a park bench and reads an editorial in a left-wing newspaper calling on Israel to apologize to Turkey for the 2010 flotilla incident, in which nine pro-Palestinian militants were killed aboard a ship after violently assaulting Israeli naval commandos. “They’re right!” he says of the editorial.
At last the fake beard comes off and the clean-shaven Mr. Bennett, who in real life is Israel’s minister of economy and heads the nationalist Jewish Home Party (in Hebrew, Habayit Hayehudi), looks at the camera and says: “Starting today, we stop apologizing. Join Habayit Hayehudi today.”
“For many years we’ve sort of apologized for everything,” Mr. Bennett explains in his Tel Aviv office. “About the fact that we are here, about the fact that this has been our land for 3,800 years, about the fact that we defend ourselves against Hamas, against Hezbollah.” It’s time, he says, “we raise our heads and say, ‘We’re here to stay, we’re proud of it, and we’re no longer apologetic.’ ”
The message has proved a potent one for the 42-year-old newbie politician, who only became a member of the Israeli Knesset in 2013 and immediately took a major ministerial post. The next parliamentary election doesn’t take place until March 17, which is a double eternity in Israeli politics. But Jewish Home is polling well, and Mr. Bennett is being talked about as a likely foreign or finance minister in the next coalition government, assuming it’s still led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party.
Now the wheel is turning again. “The latest conflict in Gaza was a real earthquake for Israelis,” says Mr. Bennett, referring to last summer’s war.
“For 50 days we were incurring missiles, and they just went on and on from the very place where we did pull back to the ’67 lines. We did expel all the Jews. We did everything according to the book. The expectation might have been, we’ll get applause from the world—‘you’re OK; it’s they who are attacking you’—but what happened was the opposite. The world got angry at us for defending ourselves.”
For decades, “land-for-peace” has been the diplomatically accepted equation for solving the Israeli-Arab conflict. Experience has shown Israelis that it doesn’t always work as anticipated. Peace with Egypt, achieved after Israel agreed to return the conquered Sinai Peninsula, has proved durable. But Israel also withdrew all of its forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, and what it got was a haven for Hamas, which used it to fire thousands of rockets at Israel. Doing likewise in the West Bank seems to many Israelis a surefire way of achieving the same result over a larger territorial scale.
Mr. Bennett, however, is making a deeper point. It isn’t only the land-for-peace formula that has failed Israel. The other failure is what one might call land-for-love: the notion that, even if ceding territory doesn’t lead to peace, it will nonetheless help Israel gain the world’s goodwill, and therefore diplomatic and strategic leverage. Instead, after 20 years of seeking peace and giving up land, Israel’s diplomatic isolation has only deepened. And, as he points out, it has deepened over disputes connected to Gaza—from which Israel withdrew—and not the West Bank, where Israel largely remains.
“So why would I follow the bad model,” Mr. Bennett asks, “instead of strengthening the good model?”
The “good model,” in Mr. Bennett’s view, is some version of the current arrangement in the West Bank, or what he calls, per official Israeli (and ancient Biblical) usage, Judea and Samaria.
“Judea and Samaria is imperfect,” he allows, “but it’s working. More Israelis and Palestinians are shopping together. Driving on the same roads. Working together. It’s not ideal there. But it’s working. People get up, go to work in the morning, come home alive.”
That’s a depiction that critics of Israeli policy would furiously contest, claiming that current policy gives Jewish settlers privileged access to the land while consigning nearly two million Palestinians to Bantustan-like enclaves. That, they say, risks transforming Israel from a democracy into an ethnocracy and guaranteeing international pariah status.
Mr. Bennett’s answer is that it’s the Palestinians who bear the blame for proving themselves unworthy of statehood. “They had all the opportunity in the world to build the Singapore of Gaza, he says. “They chose to turn it into Afghanistan.” He also believes that it’s better to find ways to make the best of a difficult situation than try to reach for a solution that is destined for failure. He wants a “Marshall Plan” to improve the Palestinian economy, “autonomy on steroids” for Palestinian politics—but no more.
“The truth is that no one has a good solution for what’s going on,” he says. “We have to figure out what we do over the next several decades. Trying to apply a Western full-fledged solution to a problem that is not solvable right now will bring us from an OK situation to a disastrous situation. So the first rule is, do no harm, which is the opposite of the Oslo process.”
Worse, he adds, is that successive Israeli leaders have felt obliged to go along with a commitment to a two-state solution, even as few of them believe it’s possible to achieve, at least with the current generation of Palestinians. As a result, he suggests, Israeli leaders can fairly be accused of insincerity.
“We go along with this vision that is impractical, and then, we are surprised why the world is angry with us for not fulfilling that vision. You can’t say, ‘I support a Palestinian state’ and then not execute according to that. I think people appreciate honesty.”
The comment is a not-too-subtle dig at Mr. Netanyahu, who formally embraced the idea of a Palestinian state in a landmark 2009 speech. Mr. Bennett was once the prime minister’s protégé, and served as his chief-of-staff when Mr. Netanyahu was in the political opposition. But the relationship soured as Mr. Bennett went on to become director-general of the Yesha Council, the umbrella group for Israeli settlers, and became even more embittered when Mr. Netanyahu agreed in 2010 to a 10-month settlement freeze. Over the past year relations between the two men have alternated between threats by the prime minister to fire Mr. Bennett and threats from Mr. Bennett to quit the coalition.
Ultimately, the two men are contesting for leadership of the Israeli right. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, given how much they have in common. Like Mr. Netanyahu, who spent much of his early life in the U.S., Mr. Bennett has strong American roots: Both his parents immigrated to Israel from California, and his English is fluent and all but unaccented. Like Mr. Netanyahu, too, who served in the Israeli special forces, Mr. Bennett was a commander in Maglan, a unit that specializes in going behind enemy lines.
And like Mr. Netanyahu, who worked as a management consultant in Boston in the 1970s, Mr. Bennett lived and worked in New York City, where he founded and ran a cybersecurity company called Cyota, which he sold for a neat profit in 2005. Today, he notes with evident pride, 70% of Americans who bank online use software developed by his company.
One difference, however, is that Mr. Netanyahu is a secular Jew, whereas Mr. Bennett, who wears the knitted kippa common to the religious-nationalist camp, is observant. His belief in the importance of holding on to land is therefore more than just a military or political consideration. It’s fundamental to his world view.
“If your vision is dividing Israel, then it makes no sense in building somewhere that’s not going to be part of Israel,” he says, again drawing an implicit contrast with Mr. Netanyahu. “If your vision is that you’re not going to divide Jerusalem, then it makes all the sense in the world to build there. Because anyway it’s yours.”
Mr. Bennett is equally critical of the government’s handling of last summer’s war with Gaza. The war, he says, took much too long, partly in a misbegotten effort to curry international favor. “I’ll just remind you, there was an endless series of cease-fires with Hamas,” he notes. “And I thought it was a profound mistake to talk to Hamas down in Egypt. You don’t talk to terror organizations! We go in, do what we want to do, get out; if we need to hit them hard we keep it short and keep it very intense. Why do we talk to them?”
“I don’t believe in regime change, certainly not in the Middle East,” he says. “When I look at the whole arena it’s always the law of unintended consequences works. Look at Syria, look at Egypt. If you ask me how to deal with everything, and it applies here also, it’s effectively deterrence—meaning don’t mess with Israel—it’s having a strong military with a tenfold edge on all of our enemies; it’s having a powerful economy; and strengthening our Jewish character. And not giving up land anymore. If we apply these principles we’ll be fine everywhere.”
“Iran’s goal is not to acquire a nuclear weapon today,” he says. “Its goal is to acquire a nuclear weapontomorrow. So to say that we are postponing the breakout is not the issue. The issue is, do they have a machine that can break out within a relatively short time frame. Roughly 20,000 centrifuges can produce enough nuclear material for a bomb within about four or five weeks. That’s not enough time for the West to identify a breakout. To create a coalition and act, you need about two years. What we need is for the whole machine to be dismantled, not for them to press the pause button.”
Mr. Bennett adds the standard Israeli refrain that the government is preparing for all contingencies and will not outsource its security, but he’s quick to underscore that a nuclear Iran—with the inevitable consequent chain of Mideast nuclear proliferation—is not Israel’s problem alone. “All this will flow over very quickly to the free world,” he warns.
>“Anyone who thinks—and I’m talking especially about Europe—that if you sell Israel you buy peace and quiet in Madrid and Paris, they’ve got it all wrong. Israel is the bastion against radical Islam hitting Paris, Madrid and London.”
I interviewed Mr. Bennett on Tuesday night. The following day, jihadists stormed the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, massacring 12 people. There will surely be more such attacks, possibly quite soon. Whatever readers think about Mr. Bennett as an Israeli politician, they might do well to heed his warning to the West:
Mr. Stephens writes the Journal’s Global View column.