Meeting with Times of Israel editorial staff on Monday morning, Naftali Bennett was at his most diplomatic: He didn’t once say the name John Kerry.
But the US secretary of state’s relentless efforts to chivy Israel and the Palestinians toward a peace accord, and Kerry’s assessment that Israel’s current relative security and prosperity are “illusional,” “momentary” and unsustainable, were the elephant in the (editorial) room.
Far from helping Israel achieve long-lasting tranquility, and helping the Palestinians flourish too, Bennett argued, 20 years of well-intentioned internationally brokered peace efforts have had the opposite effect — provoking violence and instability. “It’s a bit frustrating when people come from outside and think they have a magic solution,” he said. “They come. [Their] entering the fray creates a whole new wave of terror. And then when it fails, we’re stuck with the consequences.”
What’s needed, the Jewish Home party leader argued, are not good intentions but realistic ones. And his own “stability” plan — under which Israel would annex some 60 percent of the West Bank and grant full citizenship to the 70,000 Palestinians who live there, while giving the remaining Palestinians elsewhere in the territories self-government but not statehood — while admittedly “imperfect,” said Bennett, has the advantage of being realistic.
As minister of the economy, he also argued that Israel could survive the delegitimization and boycott efforts that would intensify were Israel to follow his lead and rule out Palestinian statehood. Israel has been boycotted throughout its brief modern history, he noted, and it would have to fight back. But the bottom line in his conception, Bennett made clear, is that the entire worldview that regards Israel as an occupying power when it comes to the Palestinians — a worldview that, he acknowledges, is shared by many Israelis — is factually incorrect and lies at the root of Israel’s battle for legitimacy.
“This is our land,” he said, referring to sovereign Israel and Judea and Samaria. “Jerusalem has been our capital for 3,000 years. Beit El and Hebron have been our land for 3,600-700 years. Any Jew or Christian or Muslim can open a Bible and read it. You have it there. This distorted view as if we’re occupying some foreign land entered the international mind and then they see it as a model of colonialism and then, yeah, [they ask] ‘Why are you occupying some other person’s land?’ That’s not the case here.”
Bennett, 41, whose Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home won 12 seats in last year’s elections, was meeting with us even as his colleagues in the Knesset were working on a much-anticipated law to bring more ultra-Orthodox males into military and national service. Our conversation was thus punctuated by Bennett SMSing, What’sApping and even good old-fashioned phoning fellow politicians to grapple with minor crises. A former successful high-tech entrepreneur (two innovative firms he headed sold for over $100 million each) who uses social media more effectively than most Israeli politicians to interact with voters, he multi-tasked smoothly through our conversation, which was conducted in English. (Though Bennett was born in Haifa, his parents are American immigrants.) Excerpts:
The Times of Israel: In an address (at the INSS think tank) last month, you said something that sounded pretty ominous about prime ministers not being forgiven for giving away Jewish land. (The actual quote was: “Our forefathers and our descendants will not forgive an Israeli leader who gives up our country and divides our capital.”)
Naftali Bennett: Everyone needs to see and understand that Israel is a link in the eternal Jewish chain that goes back thousands of years and goes forward thousands of years. I’m urging leaders to take a broad historic view of things and not only look at the now approach, the ‘peace now’ approach, the ‘solution now’ approach. That was what I was alluding to.
You don’t think that the elected prime minister has the right…?
In a democracy they do. Moreover I explicitly said that any political arrangement or settlement that is reached and is brought to a referendum, I will accept the result and I will call my supporters to accept the result. I will certainly put up the best fight I can to persuade public opinion in our direction, but I’ll respect it.
You don’t think the Palestinians have the right to a state? And you think that this country can manage fine even if it denies the Palestinians statehood?
The Arabs have dozens of states. We have a tiny little state that’s been ours for thousands of years. A little piece of land with Jerusalem, Hebron. I realize that there are two million Arabs living here. That’s why I put forward a plan which allows us to live together in peace. It’s an imperfect plan. [But] a Palestinian state, as we’ve seen in the past 20 years, means destroying the Jewish state and I’m not willing to commit suicide.
‘A Palestinian state will inevitably bring war and destruction and sorrow to this region’
No one wants peace more than I do. I served in every military conflict since 1990. I know what it means to lose friends. I don’t want to go back there. A Palestinian state will inevitably bring war and destruction and sorrow to this region while the alternative approach, the stability plan I set forth, will calm things down. It will let everyone lead much better lives than the Palestinian-state approach.
And as economy minister, despite the economic pressures and the isolation of Israel that will result from a stance of rejecting Palestinian statehood, you think Israel can continue to thrive?
Since Israel’s inception and even before, Israel has always been boycotted. Since 1945, 1948, 1967, 1973, there have always been anti-Semitic movements to boycott Israel. It’s not great, but it’s certainly not a disaster. 2013 was yet another record year in Israeli exports, in Israeli high-tech, in investments in Israel. Just a couple of weeks ago we issued a bond in the London Stock Exchange. We got 5.7 times more demand than we could actually meet.
There’s a few boycott-mongers that talk about it all day and make it sound much more [serious] than what it actually is. There is some degree of desire to hurt Israel. We have to fight back. Boycotting the Jewish state is unacceptable. We should fight back and we have ways to fight back. This is yet another battle. We have a battle against terror, a battle against conventional armies. Some people think that if they hit us in the pocket, they’ll be able to tear our country apart and our capital apart and we don’t accept this.
When the talks collapse, then, you don’t foresee an upsurge in violence and in efforts to delegitimize and boycott Israel?
In 2012 there were no discussions going on and we had the quietest year in the past 30 years. Not one Israeli was murdered in Judea and Samaria, in Jerusalem, even though there were no peace talks going on. Discussions resumed in 2013, and shortly thereafter we got a new wave of terror and dozens of terror incidents. So, if anything, I feel there’s an opposite effect. What we need in Israel is quiet and security. You can see that in years that there was security on the ground, the economy thrived even if there was no full peace settlement. Conversely, in years that there was an intifada here, the economy tanked. I’ll remind everyone that the biggest hit our economy took was in the years 2000-2004, when the second intifada started right after the Camp David accords (Bennett is referring to the president Clinton-hosted talks. DH), when Ehud Barak was pretty much willing to give everything up and the Palestinians didn’t accept.
My point is that the Western frame of mind about trying to enforce this perfect peace keeps on blowing up in our faces, again and again and again. And when something doesn’t work again and again, it’s time to think differently. I don’t see that happening. I see the international community and some of our own people leading in the same direction, which is futile. It’s not working.
So I am suggesting an imperfect approach, a stability plan, which reduces the scope of the conflict because Israel would apply its sovereignty on part of Judea and Samaria, and offer citizenship to those [Palestinians who live there]. The remainder of the Palestinians would have their own self-government, freedom of movement, freedom to govern themselves from all aspects. And we reduce the confines of the dispute. The dispute would remain. But we’d have to learn to live with this conflict as opposed to enforcing a solution that’s not enforceable.
It’s a bit frustrating when people come from outside and think they have a magic solution. They come. [Their] entering the fray creates a whole new wave of terror. And then when it fails we’re stuck with the consequences. I had to fight in Operation Defensive Shield [in the West Bank] in 2002. I flew back from America to fight here for a few weeks, to clean up the mess that the previous peace round left. I’ll remind you, the Camp David accords (again Bennett is referring to the Clinton-Barak-Yasser Arafat talks) resulted in a thousand Israelis murdered. It resulted in us having to fight again. So sometimes here in the Middle East, things are different from what conventional Western wisdom says. I know it’s hard for the Western ear to understand it, but good intentions don’t necessarily lead to good results here. Realistic intentions usually lead to better results.
Where does this overwhelming pressure in the international community to push for a solution come from?
For too many years, Israelis have talked about the notion of occupation as if we’re occupying some foreign land, like the colonialists of a hundred years ago. They forgot the simple proof that this is our land. Jerusalem has been our capital for 3,000 years. Beit El and Hebron have been our land for 3,600-3,700 years. Any Jew or Christian or Muslim can open a Bible and read it. You have it there.
This distorted view, as if we’re occupying some foreign land, entered the international mind and then they see it as a model of colonialism and then, yeah, [they ask], ‘Why are you occupying some other person’s land?’ That’s not the case here. It’s our land.
‘Let us work together on economic peace, on peace between people, for two years. Let’s see what happens’
However there are two million Palestinians. They’re not going anywhere. We’re not going anywhere. We’re all here to stay. We have to figure out how to live together. And that’s why what I’m suggesting is a model for how to live together even if de jure they don’t recognize the Jewish state, which clearly they’re not recognizing.
I’ll tell you a story that really frames this. It taught me a lot. I was down in Hebron and I met Sheikh Jabari. He’s the strongman of Hebron, about 70 years old. He told me, ‘We can never recognize the Jewish state. I can’t. It goes against the Koran. Tel Aviv is Waqf [Muslim] holy land. I can’t recognize you de jure, but I also recognize that you’re not going anywhere. You’re here to stay.’ He was referring to Hebron. ‘Now let’s try to work out things. Forget the PA, because those guys are corrupt.’ This was when I was in the Yesha council (the settler umbrella group which Bennett headed from 2010 to 2012). Let’s solve things.’ And we put them together: the settlers of Hebron who are considered the most extreme, and him, and they worked things out. And things drastically improved in Hebron for both sides. He kicked the PA out.
This was a microcosm. But it’s the toughest place in Israel, in our little Israel.
We’ve tried the diplomatic process for so many years. It’s not working. Let’s just shelve it for two years. Let us work together on economic peace, on peace between people, for two years. Let’s see what happens. You’ll see amazing things are happening. We’re shopping together, we’re working together, we’re driving on the same roads. Things were looking very good in 2012 on the ground.
And that was the year that the Palestinians were recognized by the General Assembly.
There are things that can’t be rolled back.
Fine. Whatever. I’m talking about people. You’re talking about diplomacy and processes. I’m talking about people on the ground and the quality of their lives and what they want. Not what people in Oslo or wherever want. I know it’s hard for the Western ear to hear something that doesn’t fit the clear-cut framework, but we’re in the Middle East and it’s different.
Finally (as the minister was heading out the door), how long is the government going to last?
It’s going to last. It’s a good government. It’s addressing chronic illnesses that have plagued Israel for decades, getting Haredim involved in the workforce and in service, getting Arab women involved in the workforce, balancing the budget. Doing many things. We’ll figure out a way to manage through the political issues. It’s gonna last a long time.
With reporting by Haviv Rettig Gur and Raphael Ahren