April 16, 2024
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Naftali Bennett Raises Spirits and the Sanctions

Haifa-born Naftali Bennett is the 41-year-old, former software entrepreneur who proposed a new mission and a new name—The Jewish Home—to a fading political party, was elected its leader and changed its future.

His parents, Modern Orthodox Jews from San Francisco, made aliyah after the Six-Day War. He attended Yavne Yeshiva High School in Haifa and was a member of the religious-Zionist youth organization Bnei Akiva. In the IDF, he rose to the rank of company commander and currently is a Major in the reserves. Bennett holds a law degree from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is married to Gilat, a professional pastry chef. They have four children, and live in Ra’anana.

Bennett developed “Cyota,” a company which created anti-fraud software used by many banks. The company was sold for $145,000,000 in 2005. He also served as the CEO of Soluto, which provides cloud-based services.

At a meeting of members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Bennett explained that his entry into politics was sparked by his experiences during the Second Lebanon War. “The war shifted my life,” said the man who was Bibi Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff from 2006 to 2008 and then ran his primary campaign for Likud party leadership. In 2010, Bennett was appointed Director General of the Yesha Council and led the struggle against the Settlement freeze. Bennett is very much the embodiment of the religious Zionists’ dream that Israel must be more than a state of safe refuge for Jews. The Israel Bennett envisions is one that extends the spirit of Judaism and the Jewish people.

Bennett co-founded My Israel with Ayelet Shaked, a secular woman. A year later, Bennett developed Yisraelim—Israelis—a movement dedicated to increasing Zionism among the center-right wing, increasing dialogue between religious and non-religious communities, and promoting “The Bennett Plan.” He soon resigned from Likud, joined Meftal, the lobbying party of the religious Zionists, changed its name to Yisrael Beitanu—The Jewish Home—and was elected party head with a 67% plurality. (Shaked placed second.)

In the January 2013 elections to the Knesset, Bennett’s revitalized party won 12 seats. With some tough negotiations and some unusual political accommodation, he joined the election’s other surprise success, Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid—There is a Future—to form a coalition. “We agree on 70% of the issues,” he says. Now Minister of Industry, Trade, and Labor, Minister of Religious Services, Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, and a Member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Bennett is influential in financial, political and security affairs.

Bennett’s attitude about any peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority is significantly “right wing.” He opposes the creation of an independent Palestinian state, suggesting that Israel must learn to live with the Palestinian problem without the “surgical action” of separation into two states. “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state,” he has said. He has proposed “The Tranquilizing Plan” which suggests unilateral annexation of “Area C,” and placement of “Areas A” and “Area B” under the Palestinian Authority rule, and development of a connecting roadway without checkpoints. The entire area would remain under Israeli security. He proposes the creation of work zones, factories where Israelis and Palestinians work together, citing this as one workable approach to finding peace between the two sides. “Peace grows from below—through people in daily life.”

Bennett is an ardent proponent of a free economy as the engine for economic growth and opposes monopolies and big unions. He expressed his pride in having broken Israel’s “cement monopoly.” The Minister believes education is the key to equality of opportunity, especially for students from periphery communities and for populations of weaker economic backgrounds.

“These are fateful days,” he began.

Recalling his experience in the Second Lebanon War, he said, “Fighting when you have kids is a whole different ball game.” Bennett says his realization that Hezbollah “does not want us in Israel” was “an eye-opener” noting that his “generation of the 80’s did not grow up with any existential threat.” He believes Israel’s weak performance n the Second Lebanon War stemmed from “a lack of spirit. You can’t defend your country if you don’t know its history. I am not looking for everyone to be religious, just to be Jewish.”

Bennett transformed what he termed a “babysitter party, the lobby party of the religious” into one focused on strengthening Israel’s Jewish identity. Bennett says his party is open to both secular and religious. “Differences are meaningless: we’re all Jews….Israel needs to learn to include.”

By reaching out to Yair Lapid and the left leaning Yesh Atid—There is a Future—party “for political and tactical reasons.” They formed an alliance of 31 seats. “What started as a tactical move has grown into something more profound,” Bennett said. “We agree on 70% of the issues.” Among the areas of agreement are getting Arab women and haredim (ultra-orthodox) into the work force. “We’re solving some of Israel’s chronic illnesses. I’m convinced that working side by side will tear down walls of prejudice. At the end of the day, people are people. They want to live good lives.”

“Poverty,” says the Minister, is “an effective drive to both the army and jobs. The haredim do not want to be poor.”

“Israel is a lighthouse in the storm in a region of chaos,” says Bennett. He foresees continuing for the next 20 years. Israel must project light—to be “a light until the nations.” Like a lighthouse, “we have strong foundations and a 3800 year history… .  My goal as minister of economy is to shift Israel from startup nation to sustainable nation. When we do good, we do well… sustainability requires making money. To be the lighthouse, we first need to exist.”

“If (Zionism) is all just about safety, then Teaneck, New Jersey, is safer—but it’s not our home. I do not accept the term ‘occupied’…I do not accept the common notion that it’s all about security. First of all, it’s about our home… The Bible is our mandate; the declaration of independence is about our history. The practical is not the guide….Any deal on the table that includes dividing Jerusalem is a no deal.”

Naftali Bennett came to the New York/New Jersey area after spending time in Washington, DC. In New York, he spoke about his vision and the mission of his party Yisrael Betainu – the Jewish Home – to largely Jewish audiences (Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Yeshiva University, at the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue to supporters of Bnai Akiva Yeshiva, and in Teaneck, New Jersey where he spent several childhood years. In the U.S capital, he met with legislative leaders to convey Israel’s concerns about Iran to key American policy makers.

Bennett opined that “if a bad deal is signed, the result could be disastrous.” He emphasized the strong friendship between Israeli and the US – noting that “the Obama administration is a huge friend of Israel… even when we disagree.” He cautions that “we have to remember that the American relationship is what will be in the future.”

Bennett believes the only reason Iran has agreed to talk with the West at all is because of the damage done to its economy by the success of the international sanctions, and believes sanctions should be increased until Iran agrees not just to stop uranium production but to dismantle its centrifuges.

The Minister responded to press and audience questions. Asked about Israel’s response to European and other BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) efforts, Bennett said the answer is to diversify. He noted that Israel is opening trade offices in China, India, and Africa.

Rabbi Eli Abadi, Senior Rabbi of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue calls Bennett “a bridge that represents the startup nation with traditional values. Dialogue, he says, “is critical.”

“The biggest challenge is disconnecting from our roots…Beit Yehudi is about restoring the soul of the Jewish people. “Losing Jews daily is a disaster—a terrible disaster.” He pointed out that in recent Israeli budget reductions, the line item for Taglit—the Birthright program—was the only one not decreased.

Bennett focused on the urgency of Jewish unity throughout his presentations. “We’re doing amazing things in Israel,” he said. “We are our biggest threat, not Iran. Americans must work to keep your children Jewish.”

By Maxine Dovere

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