Israel’s Minister Without Apologies

By Bret Stephens, WSJ  Updated Jan. 9, 2015 6:55 p.m. ET

bennett2It’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.

Should a Likud-Jewish Home government form, it could represent a tectonic shift in Israeli politics. For 25 years, between Israel’s capture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six Day War and the 1992 election of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, every Israeli government had categorically rejected the idea of a Palestinian state. Then came the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, after which Israeli governments of both the left and right, including Mr. Netanyahu’s, effectively committed Israel to the two-state solution.

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?”

Lest anyone mistake Mr. Bennett for an Israeli neoconservative, however, he’s quick to disabuse the impression.

“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.”

So how should Israel—and for that matter the West—conduct a sober and realistic Mideast policy? I ask about Iran.

“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.

The same goes for the broader problem of radical Islam.

>“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:

“The biggest danger for any organism is to not identify that it’s being threatened,” he says. “I want to hope that people realize that the source of danger and risk in the Middle East is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but the deep radical Islamic vision of forming a global caliphate.”

Mr. Stephens writes the Journal’s Global View column.

January 10, 2015 | 15 Comments »

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  1. @ ArnoldHarris:
    I very much like to read your comments.
    First the important stuff… 🙂
    Indeed I am myself an Argentinean Jewish Gaucho born in the Baron Hirsh? Colonies in Entre Rios. I learnt to ride my horse “Sapo” before I was able to run on my own. We were and are ranchers, cattle and horses. I emigrated to the USA fresh out of college hired by Zenith in Chicago.
    Ended up working for Uncle Sam’s Military Avionics Programs and retiring at that.
    The beef items I mentioned are specialties I retained from those times in Argentina though.
    Today in Israel you can get the best beef anywhere and at very good prices. Remarkably, sheep is far more expensive.
    Tarnegol odu and chicken remain mainstays here.
    Yet, standard and high end fish are also well priced and available everywhere.
    Chetzi manah falafel or shwarmah are sold all over… With any salad you may want.

    Your forecast seem plausible to me also. Lets wait another month for a better view of what happens.

    Be well and welcome to visit when you come.

  2. @ SHmuel HaLevi 2:

    SHL,

    1) I too would prefer Naftali Bennett as rosh hamemshela of Israel. But preferences in politics do not always translate to outcomes of elections. Assuming Binyamin Netanyahu is chosen for another term of highest office, then I want Bennett preferably as defense minister, where, I think, his influence could well push the government into replacing military rule in Area C to civil administration, but with Zahal units stationed in readiness along he length of the Jordan River and in key locations inland. Civil administration of Area C, backed up by continuous and permanent Jewish population increases there, will in fact evolve quickly to de facto recognition of Israeli sovereignty. When the Jewish population in that two-thirds of Shomron and Yehuda passes a half-million, the Jewish population there could then ask for and get a referendum similar to the one the Russians used to justify annexation of the Crimea peninsula. I even think that Vladimir Putin would smile over the realpolitik of Israeli use of that idea which he used so adroitly last year.

    2) The only omelets my wife permits me to eat these days are made solely of egg whites, but with chopped onions and ground pepper for flavoring. If I were in Israel, I think we would be shopping for ohf hodu at the open-air market in Jerusalem, as we did more tan 40 years ago; turkey doesn’t taste bad as a substitute for beef, once you get used to it. Aside from that, after appearance of the three stars in the sky on Saturday nights, we would be out in the street with the rest of Jerusalem’s population, ordering and eating haetzi felafel sandwiches with plenty of hot charif. I used Wikipedia to look up the dish you mentioned, which apparently is Argentinian. Do you or your family have South American roots? When Stefi and I were studying Ivrit at a Merkaz HaKlita adjoining Shikun Dora south of Netanya, some of our fellow students and friends were from Argentina and Chile. Now and then, they would organize an “asado” with spiced and grilled sausages as the main treat. The Argentinians among them seemed to want to eat nothing but beef, and waxed mightily unhappy at what passed for beef in the dining hall of the language school. In the winters of our discontent in our seasonally-frozen rural wooden palace in the northlands of mid-America, I dream frequently of life in Israel. For any real Jew, life anywhere else is mere fakery.

    Arnold Harris
    Mount Horeb WI

  3. @ sabashimon:
    LOL Keep up the good work my friend. My youngest son is about to be drafted and the rest of the children served and later either got married or settled overseas. I long ago ended my Miluim stunts…:) OT Lebanon.
    I ask to please do not give up hope. In short notice correction will come and will be great again.

    Salud!

  4. @ SHmuel HaLevi 2:
    Haha…..my mistake Shmuel, it sounds like you do indeed understand quite well the nature of Israeli politics.
    Bibi always has known the words to say, but I have almost never seen him follow up with the actions that match the rhetoric.
    As for Livni, well…..she’s Livni, the ultimate political whore.
    I’m still doing miluim, and my oldest grandson just finished officers course, so I have to have some hope, some optimism.
    Unfortunately with the quality of “leaders” in our midst today, I have neither.

  5. @ sabashimon:
    Saba, I am a former veteran LIKUD member and Central Committee member. Resigned years back. What I do not know about the skunk nests here, can be reduced to nearly nothing.
    Netanyahu will of course do what he always did. Equivocate and betray. And he will fail sooner rather than later.
    The tragicomic spectacle of the primary ballot boxes and vote counts is representative of the whole system here not just the pretend likud.

  6. @ SHmuel HaLevi 2:

    “Netanyahu will not be able to coalesce with Livni again”
    LOL Shmuel you obviously don’t know Israeli politics. When it comes to keeping that Volvo (or whatever they’re driving these days) anything is possible, especially between those two political whores/snakes.
    Keep safe friend.

  7. @ ArnoldHarris:
    Two things I must say up front. Do not say that your contributions to our people are less valuable than anyone else’s. They are not so. You are a very important member of our people at all times. You may live long enough to see all that is good coming to be.
    Second. I like an egg omelet part of two meals a week in particular one made by my wife using only eggs, finely chopped onions, some pepper, milk and then microwave it.
    No oil!
    When you come over we will welcome you with that or chili con carne or matambre… your choice.

    I believe that the election is still wide open and will be so until we can see the unsure voters dwindling to less that 25%. No poll can serve us if we have 50% of the people undecided.
    Mr. Bennett is far more appealing to me as a possible PM or minister of defense than any of the other routine candidates.
    His chances are fair only since there will be huge foreign funds influx against him.
    Your plan for the future. I like your approach and agree with you that we must move on to return to the fold our Land Y & S, in steps as need be but final.

    Be well and come over.

  8. @ SHmuel HaLevi 2:
    SHL,

    Your background in engineering has been far more meaningful for yourself and Israel than anything I ever have undertaken. So, kol hakavod. If you are anything close to my age, going on 81 in early April, I hope and trust you are in vigorous health. If you cannot beat the bastards, then outlive them.

    I too like Bennett and I hope I live long enough to see that he has risen to the level of Rosh HaMemshela of the government of the Jewish State of Israel. However, unless and until I see trustworthy polling evidence that he can and will overtake HaLikud in the March 2015 Knesset election, then I assume he and his party will play a leading role in forming a Jewish nationalist and Jewish religious coalition, with understanding all around that Binyamin Netanyahu shall remain the man in charge.

    Assuming that shall have been achieved when the political dust settles, I think events shall compel Netanyahu’s likely coalition to give up all notions of a two-state solution or any other sort of long-term peace agreement with either or both Fatah and Hamas. Hopefully he and they have long since reached such a conclusion. In any case, it then becomes imperative for Israel to firm up permanent Jewish national control throughout Area C, which can only be accomplished by permanent Jewish urbanization of the|62 percent of the land area of Shomron and Yehuda which Area C comprises.

    That will be a long-term and continuous process. I have long thought that Israel should immediately and formally annex Area C. But it has become obvious to me that recent and likely future governments of Israel have been and shall remain too diffident to proclaim a formal annexation. If so, they probably can accomplish the same result by simply transferring administration of Area C from military to civil administration, with the Zahal’s authority focused mainly on the easternmost strip of land adjoining the Jordan River.

    That tactic, once put on place, would harden Israel’s de facto control, which would be a satisfactory substitute for the de jure recognition that Israel many never be awarded but that Israel and the Jewish nation can live without. In any case, the one thing most needed is a steady flow of Jewish settlement throughout all parts of Area C, to ensure that all this shall be an egg omelet that nobody ever shall be able to unscramble.

    Let me know what you think of the process I have advocated here.

    Arnold Harris
    Mopunt Horeb WI

  9. Remarkable.
    My background is basically in Engineering with specialization on Military Avionics Systems for the US Department of Defense. Among my assignments as part of the Corporate Engineering Excellence Board as a Senior-Fellow Engineer, included systems analysis, developing ATP’s and forecasting.
    Also listed as Invited Consultant to the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
    Command top level ranking as a Senior Quality Assurance Engineer. Specialized on statistical analysis.
    Presently I am a Professor, Graduation Boards Member on behalf of the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labor.
    I hold US Patent and special credits for still limited access work on population, be that electronic components or operatives screening techniques development.
    The cumulative Poll operated by HS and College students volunteers include my designed formats. It is not subject to review or approval by anyone. Our intent is primarily to use the information ferreted out for ourselves and anyone else who so wishes.
    Our findings may or may not be liked or accepted by anyone so inclined. We are not into a popularity contest.
    The fact remain that only very poor analysts would NOT report that about 50% of the voters are undecided.

    Be well.

  10. @ SHmuel HaLevi 2:
    SHL,

    I think the steady weekly poll analyses provided by Jeremy’s Knesset Insider are more dependable than an unnamed analysis indicating that 50 per cent of the citizenry have made no choice whatsoever, but which fails to provide any sort of explanation for that analysis.

    I think I know at least a little about what I have commented on this topic. The professional work assignments I had much earlier in my life included devising frameworks for scoring responses to open-ended questions on surveys of mathematics and science teachers who had attended seminars during the previous summer.

    Then a number of years later, having completed a masters degree in urban and regional planning based on my graduate studies both in Israel and at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, I was a consultant for a federally-funded multistate river basin planning commission in the USA’s upper Midwest. My initial assignment was to assemble a team of regional planning experts from universities in four of those states, and to help guide the development of public participation in the overall regional planning, a process that included large-scale surveys of the populations of all the states located in the river basin, relative to public preferences regarding possible master plan outcomes to be recommended to the federal government.

    After the master planning was completed, the planning commission responsible for all this work tasked me to investigate the entire process both in narrative and analytical format. All of this was published at government expense in a supplement to the completed plan. I was well paid for all the involvement described above, but perhaps more significantly, I rarely have been fooled by results of public opinion polls.

    Arnold Harris
    Mount Horeb WI

  11. @ Eric R.:
    Nothing is solid yet with still 50% of the people undecided. Yet, Mr. Bennett, if well managed, can do it.
    Netanyahu can be a very good Finance Minister or quit again if that is his line. Netanyahu will not be able to coalesce with Livni again.

  12. @ SHmuel HaLevi 2:

    Shmuel:

    From that poll, Bennett has reasons for optimism:

    a) Those polls are run by media outlets which, from what I understand, lean left in Israel just as they do here in America. That also means that some people likely are not being truthful to pollsters that are likely leftist.

    b) The huge number of undecideds will likely break farther right due to the rise of Naziism in Europe and the PLO going to the ICC. Seeing the EU and UN as implacable enemies, they will vote for those candidates who realize that.

    c) Jewish Home really has to only beat Likud by two to three points, then Bennett can claim enough of a mandate to form the government. Yes, I know that Comrade Obama and the Nazis of the EU will push for a National Unity Labor-Likud government, but the idea of these two groups trying to play with internal Israeli politics would only strengthen Bennett.

    Events will push voters to Jewish Home, enough that Bennett calls the shots afterwards. He will be PM; the question is whether King Bibi can play second fiddle as FM or if he quits entirely.

  13. @ Eric R.:
    According to unaffiliated cumulative polls the true standings are as follows.
    LIKUD: 23
    Jewish Home: 20
    Livni-Hertzog: 17
    Islamic group: 11
    Jewish Orthodox: 9
    Kohalon: 8
    LAPID: 7
    Lieberman: 7
    Meretz: 6
    Jewish power: 5
    SHAS: 4
    Yishai: (3-4)

    50% of the polled have not responded.

  14. “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.”

    Mr. Stephens – if Bennett gets one of the above posts, he will consider it a failure. He’s going for the whole enchilada, and recent events both in and around Israel and in Europe are only validating him and giving him strength.

    Mr. Bennett will surprise the (rather delusional) international media. He will be the next Prime Minister.