While the Obama administration has been “a huge friend” to Israel, with “unprecedented cooperation on security and intelligence” issues, “at the end of the day Israel can’t outsource its security,” Naftali Bennett, a key member of the Israeli cabinet, told The Jewish Week in an exclusive interview here last Friday.
“We’ll never depend on anyone” who tells Israel “‘we have your back,’ we will never rely on others to protect us,” he said. “We’re the ones who live in the neighborhood.”
After the hour-long meeting, which also included discussion of the Mideast peace talks and efforts in the Knesset to resolve Israel-diaspora tensions, it seemed clear why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose Bennett to take on the critical role this past week of lobbying on Capitol Hill against a “bad deal” with Iran on its nuclear program.
With Israel being pressured heavily now by the U.S. on two key fronts — the West’s negotiations with Tehran and the Israel-Palestinian peace talks — there is an increasingly worrisome showdown at hand between the two key allies, though Bennett described it as “a disagreement … on tactics … between friends.”
The Obama administration, chiefly through Secretary of State John Kerry, is voicing its open frustration, if not anger, at the Netanyahu government for its perceived obstructionist stance on both the Iran and Palestinian issues; Jerusalem, however, is insisting it will not be bullied, even by its closest and most important friend, into jeopardizing its security.
Enter Bennett, 41, leader of the energized right-wing Jewish Home party and minister of economy, labor and industry as well as of religious affairs and diaspora-Israel relations. Of particular note he is a fresh face in the U.S. whose personal charm, political smarts, venture capital success, mastery of English (his parents made aliyah from San Francisco), and ability to make tough statements with a soft touch, made him a solid choice for the assignment. He met with about 40 members of Congress during two days of intensive talks in Washington and with members of the press there and in New York.
A relaxed and smiling Bennett, visiting the Times Square offices of The Jewish Week, said it was “an extraordinary week” and that he received “very positive” responses from Democrats, and especially Republicans, to his call for Congress to “ratchet up the pressure” on Iran through economic sanctions.
Acknowledging that the Israeli government “was very surprised at the magnitude of the proposed sanction relief” and the minimal concessions in terms of Iran halting nuclear production, Bennett expressed concern that an easing of the economic sanctions would prompt a number of countries to resume doing business with Iran, ending the financial stranglehold.
Echoing Netanyahu, he said that while the U.S. and Israel share the same goal of preventing Iran from having nuclear arms, no deal is better than a bad deal.
On other key issues, Bennett, who opposes a Palestinian state, said that rather than hold protests against the current talks with the Palestinians, he prefers to hold his fire. But he has insisted on a national referendum should the cabinet approve a peace deal. Only at that time, he said, would he speak out in active opposition.
For all the recent emphasis in Israel on foreign policy, Bennett said the Knesset, elected earlier this year with a record number of new members like him, was primarily interested in domestic issues.
“Seventy percent of Israelis agree on 70 percent of the issues,” he said. Various polls show there is general consensus on matters of security.
Much of his work has dealt with both religious and economic issues, like finding ways to bring haredi men, many of whom study Torah and are subsidized by the government, into the work force. Bennett said that unlike Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party and a close working partner, he is less interested in bringing haredim into the army than finding jobs for them, a key issue for the national economy. He noted that he was instrumental in setting up employment centers around the country to train the haredim in various skills and expressed confidence that haredi leaders are supportive.
Perhaps his best-known act during his brief tenure to date was ordering the construction several months ago of a large platform at Robinson’s Arch, at the Western Wall, to allow for egalitarian prayer services and accommodate the Women of the Wall group on Rosh Chodesh.
The move was done within days and without prior consultation with the government — Bennett agreed with those who called it “a settler move” — but it has been widely praised by leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements, Women of the Wall and Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency head charged with coming up with a solution to the controversy over prayer at the Kotel.
All agree the platform is a temporary and not ideal answer to the problem, but that it is helpful for now.
Bennett said he is guided by three principles in dealing with change on religious issues: there must be dialogue — building the platform quickly was an exception, he said, to prevent “a bureaucratic stall”; he will not go against halacha (Jewish law); and “it must be good for Israel and the Jewish people.”
As minister of religious affairs he has the right to veto legislation on religious issues.
One new proposal he favors is establishing one chief rabbi rather than maintaining Ashkenazi and Sephardic leaders for their respective communities.
On a personal note, Bennett said that when he and his wife lived on the Upper East Side for four years when he was in business here, they became regulars at the Beginners Minyan at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun.
His wife, who had a secular background, “became closer to Judaism” because the Shabbat service welcomed all, “no questions asked and no prejudice.”
“It made a huge impression on me,” Bennett said. “We don’t have this approach in Israel but that’s what I want to do there.”