Naftali Bennett doesn’t fit the perceived profile of a leader of the Israeli settler movement.
He initially believed the Oslo plan would bring peace; he is a man of wealth, having helped found and serve as CEO of a hugely successful computer startup that he and his partners sold for $145 million in 2005; and he lives in Raanana, an upscale modern city of about 80,000, inside Israel proper.
But Bennett, 38, agreed last year to become director general of the Yesha Council, the umbrella group of Jewish regional councils in the West Bank (traditionally known as Judea and Samaria), because he is convinced that maintaining the settlements is essential to Israeli security. And he asserts that the key to stability in the region is Arab-Jewish coexistence, which he says is working to a remarkable degree, though virtually unreported.
“If the politicians would just leave us alone for five years, we could work things out on the ground,” he said ruefully during a recent visit to New York.
Bennett is well aware of how unlikely it is that an international community, and especially the U.S. administration, would abandon diplomatic efforts to achieve a measure of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Conventional wisdom has it that the diplomatic vacuum leads to violence. But he believes that is the best and perhaps only way to bring calm, if not full peace, to the troubled area.
He noted that he was in Hebron two days earlier, where he met with the head of the Jabari family, the most powerful Arab clan in the area. “He invited me to his house and told me how fed up he was with the idea of a Palestinian state,” distrustful of the Palestinian Authority and its various factions after enduring an 18-month curfew during the second intifada, and worried that Hamas ultimately would assume control.
“He is a pragmatic man who said he realizes the Jews are here to stay and that he can work with Israeli authorities to resolve issues of concern to him,” like, most recently, the need for a water pipeline in the area.
Bennett is considering going back to Hebron soon to video such exchanges so that more people will appreciate what he calls “myth busters” — facts that fly in the face of widespread perceptions about the West Bank. He asserts, for example, that only 6 percent of Judea and Samaria are built up; that no one — Jew or Palestinian — believes a diplomatic process will bring peace; and that, most importantly, “Judea and Samaria are prospering and have never been as quiet as today.”
The main reason, he said, is because Israel controls the area, and knows how to keep it stable.
Bennett is an affable and savvy veteran of political as well as military struggles. He was chief of staff to Benjamin Netanyahu for two years when the current prime minister was leader of the opposition. Their relationship was strained in the past year, he acknowledged, when the Yesha Council pushed hard against the government’s freeze on building in the settlements.
‘It’s Not Over’
The son of American parents who made aliyah from San Francisco, Bennett was a company commander in the IDF, and it was his combat experience in the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon that changed his thinking about the prospects for peace.
The day after his farewell party on leaving his computer company, Bennett found himself in Lebanon, at war.
“We grew up thinking there would be no more real wars for us,” he said of his generation, “but I realized it’s not over, that it’s not up to us,” that Israel has enemies like Hezbollah and Hamas determined to destroy the Jewish state.
Bennett said he lost confidence in Israel’s political leadership under Ehud Olmert, and has come to believe that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the Jewish state to maintain security without the West Bank.
“Israel would lose its soul,” he said. “The battle now is over the soul of Israel. Judea and Samaria doesn’t belong [just] to the settlers. We have to harness the hearts and minds of all Israelis.”
The most effective way to do that is to show them the reality of life today in Judea and Samaria, Bennett said. In his first year at the Yesha Council he focused on bringing nearly 500 opinion leaders to the region for individualized one-day tours.
Many had not set foot in the West Bank in years, if ever. According to Bennett, common reactions were surprise at the high percentage of secular settlers (about 120,000 out of 330,000), the lack of roadblocks, the beauty of the landscape and the number of large cities, like Ariel, with more than 30,000 people and a university with Arab as well as Jewish students.
Another revelation to visitors was the degree of joint Jewish-Arab economic cooperation. The tour includes visits to several of the 50 or so factories in the industrial region where Jews and Palestinians work together. Bennett said that 20 percent of the Palestinian population is supported by joint settler-Arab businesses.
“I drive around the region every day, and I am optimistic,” Bennett said. “Many of the roadblocks have been removed, the Arabs control their own people, and the new generation of settlers are more open-minded. I visit supermarkets where half the shoppers are Arab and half are Jewish. It’s an imperfect solution, yes, but it’s working,” he insisted, “and I know the diplomatic approach won’t work.”
The Yesha Council has not attempted to reach America with its message of on-the-ground progress, but may do so this year.
“The world has a total misperception of the reality of the situation,” Bennett said. “Let people come and see for themselves.”
‘Political Vision Is Needed’
One expert on the West Bank who has seen for himself is David Makovsky, the former Jerusalem Post editor and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is highly skeptical of Bennett’s approach.
“I hope he’s right,” he said of Bennett’s observations, but he questioned the premise that maintaining the status quo in the West Bank will prove fruitful.
“Some political vision is needed here,” said Makovsky. “We don’t see enough active signs that the settlers are trying to facilitate a bottom-up approach to Palestinian institution-building. And even if they did, would this be sufficient?”
Makovsky, whose maps showing how land swaps could satisfy core demands of both the Palestinian Authority and Israeli government are attracting increased positive attention among policy makers, noted that “a rising chorus of critics would question whether it is sustainable to have an exclusively bottom-up approach in the absence of top-down negotiations.”
He said the lack of diplomatic movement could well lead to the “discrediting of the current Palestinian leadership and greater radicalization,” and he cautioned that settlers “cannot be oblivious to the difference between Hamas control of the West Bank rather than the PLO.”
Bennett insists, though, that it is precisely what he calls “the cocktail diplomacy route we’ve been on for decades” that is the problem.
“It’s the futility and frustration” that comes from Israeli and Palestinian negotiators not being able each other’s minimal demands that “leads to terror, as it did with the second intifada, just after the most so-called progress in the peace process.”
The reason for the current calm, he said, is because of the presence of the IDF.
While both Jews and Arabs may prefer the other disappear from the region, “it ain’t gonna happen,” said Bennett, “and the alternative to violence is to say ‘we disagree on the long-term solution but let’s agree on the short-term” issues like the common need for water and not killing each other, and work toward those goals.
“Not everything can be resolved top-down,” he asserted.
Bennett believes that a growing realization on the part of the Arabs that “Israelis are here to stay” will lead to “figuring out how to live together.”
His call for pragmatism on the ground, like Makovsky’s coded maps of potential land swaps, make a great deal of sense. But the history of the Mideast conflict has long defied the logic of compromise and coexistence.
The intense international focus and pressure brought to bear on the settlements as the primary cause for the Mideast stalemate is misguided, if not malevolent. Indeed, the crux of the problem remains the continuing unwillingness of much of the Arab world to recognize the Jews’ right to a state in the region.
In the meantime, Naftali Bennett’s echo of Voltaire’s statement that “perfection is the enemy of the good” has a resonance that bears reflection.