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In this Sunday, November 24, 2019 photo, then-defense minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit an Israeli military base in the Golan Heights, on the Israeli-Syrian border. (Atef Safadi/Pool via AP, File)
Atef Safadi/Pool via AP: Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights, on the Israeli-Syrian border, November 24, 2019
My left-wing friends are not 1 gram less patriotic than I am

Bennett: I’m more right-wing than Bibi, but I don’t use the tools of hate

In a landmark interview, the likely election kingmaker sets out hawkish policies but an inclusive Jewish philosophy; assures voters: Israel thrived before Bibi, will soar after him

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Main image by Atef Safadi/Pool via AP: Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights, on the Israeli-Syrian border, November 24, 2019

Several of Israel’s political parties have indicated that they won’t join forces under anyone but Benjamin Netanyahu when it’s time to build a coalition after next month’s elections. Several more have made plain that they’ll partner with anyone, or almost anyone, except Netanyahu.

Between these pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs sits one man, Naftali Bennett, leader of Yamina. Bennett, 48, has his sights set on being prime minister himself, and says it’s past time that Netanyahu, 71, move on. But in contrast to Gideon Sa’ar, who like Bennett is a former close Netanyahu ally now leading a rival right-wing party, Bennett won’t definitively rule out a coalition partnership with Netanyahu. He wants to defeat Netanyahu fair and square at the ballot box, he says, not boycott him.

Bennett’s extraordinary position as the so-called kingmaker in these elections should give hope to would-be political leaders everywhere, since less than two years ago, after the first of what have turned out to be four rapid-fire election campaigns, he looked like he was finished. The New Right party that he led confidently into the April 2019 vote, avowedly seeking to build “a true partnership between secular and religious Israelis,” fared unexpectedly badly on polling day, and wound up just below the electoral threshold; Bennett and his longtime party colleague Ayelet Shaked, senior ministers in the previous coalition, found themselves not merely out of government but ejected from parliament altogether.

What’s similarly remarkable is that Bennett and Shaked are following much the same philosophy with Yamina in this campaign — the desire to represent the widest possible alliance of secular and Orthodox Israelis on the right — but with far more success, if the party’s consistent polling at around 11-12 seats is to be believed.

The Channel 12 TV studio, February 23, 2021, with a graphic showing the latest pre-election poll findings: In light blue, the anti-Netanyahu bloc at 62 seats; in dark blue, the pro-Netanyahu bloc at 47 seats; in white between them, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party on 11 seats. (Channel 12 screenshot)

In the pollsters’ graphic representations, Yamina is now customarily placed between the blocs of pro- and anti-Netanyahu parties, signaling that Bennett holds the balance of power between them. But as Bennett made plain to The Times of Israel in an extensive interview this week, that picture is a little misleading.

He’s not in the business of boycotting political rivals, but he is a man of “the national camp” — a firm and proud right-winger who will oppose Palestinian statehood forever, under any and every circumstance; who wants to extend Israeli sovereignty to some 60 percent of the West Bank; who thinks Israel has already relinquished too much of its Biblical land. He’s aiming to form “a government with national values.” And he depicts March 23’s election as a head-to-head between him and Netanyahu. In our interview, he gave his one-time ally from the center of the political spectrum, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, the most succinct of dismissals: “Lapid is not going to be the next prime minister,” he said.

The revived significance of Bennett, the phoenix risen from the ashes of 2019, underlines why next month’s election, taking place just four days before Passover, is different from the three inconclusive elections that preceded it

The revived significance of Naftali Bennett, the phoenix risen from the ashes of 2019, underlines why next month’s election, which is taking place just four days before Passover, is different from the three inconclusive elections that preceded it. Three times, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party — an alliance of left, right and center politicians united only by their conviction that Netanyahu had to go — came close but didn’t quite oust the prime minister. But after Gantz joined forces with Netanyahu last spring, that alliance collapsed, Lapid’s Yesh Atid component went into the opposition, Gantz will now be hard-pressed to get back into the Knesset, and lots of anti-Netanyahu voters are now backing Bennett or Sa’ar.

Three times, the elections could be summarized, albeit crudely, as battles to oust Netanyahu and the right. This time, they constitute more of a battle to oust Netanyahu by the right, with Bennett and Sa’ar at the fore, and Bennett betting that his “no boycotts” approach, combined with his years of ministerial experience, his earlier successful high-tech career, and his glowing military commander’s record, will give him the edge.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett campaigns ahead of the 2021 elections in Ashdod (Ariel Zandberg)

The Times of Israel interviewed Bennett on Monday at his campaign headquarters in Ra’anana. We covered a lot of ground, providing a wide sense of what Bennett stands for.

He talked about his reasons for entering politics — a drive that began when, the day after his high-tech company was sold for $145 million, as he might have been contemplating “cocktails in the Caribbean,” he instead found himself commanding soldiers in the Second Lebanon War because of what he considered incompetent national leadership.

He set out specific policies that he believes can transform the economy, including an “outside-the-box” plan for getting army-exempted ultra-Orthodox men into the workforce.

Strikingly, while he said he has confidence in Israel’s courts, he emphatically did not dismiss the notion that the state prosecution has framed the prime minister.

He differentiated himself perhaps most insistently from Netanyahu not as regards hawkish politics — though he placed himself firmly to the prime minister’s right — but in vowing to eschew what he sees as Netanyahu’s politics of domestic hatred and division. “This whole notion of leftists being traitors and all of this nonsense is unacceptable,” he said. “What Bibi did for ages… the dog whistle against this group or that group, I don’t go there. I’m more right-wing than Bibi, but I don’t use hate or polarization as a tool to promote myself politically.”

Naftali Bennett announces he is running for prime minister, December 23, 2020 (Uri Cohen)

And he confronted the psychological barrier facing Netanyahu’s challengers — the fact that a generation of Israelis has now grown up with only one prime minister, and may have a conscious or subconscious fear of what would become of an Israel without him. “Israel thrived before Bibi and will thrive after Bibi,” Bennett declared. “The Jewish people are not dependent on one person. A good leader does not create that sense that everything depends on him.”

We talked for an hour, in English, and he added a couple of additional points in a subsequent text message. He seemed well-prepared, his positions clear, unapologetic both in his hawkishness and his respect for those who strongly disagree with him.

Bennett speaks excellent English (his parents moved here from the United States); one more reason, he said, that Israelis can afford to feel confident he’ll represent their interests well on the world stage. (What follows is a lightly edited transcript.)

The Times of Israel: You’re running for prime minister, but you also don’t rule out sitting with the prime minister. You want to oust him, but he’s not such a terrible person that you couldn’t sit with him. Explain that.

It’s vital that we change leadership. We need to reinvigorate Israel. The past year has been an unmitigated disaster in terms of incompetence and mismanagement.

The bottom line is that we could have done much better [in tackling the pandemic]. Had [Transportation Minister Miri] Regv and Bibi [Netanyahu] not prevented testing [of arrivals] in Ben Gurion Airport [for COVID-19], we wouldn’t have imported tens of thousands of infected people, with all the mutations and all the variants.

Everything has become politicized. It’s time to move the leadership to the younger generation of the national camp. This is the first time that I’m actually running for prime minister. Not for personal reasons, but because I think that I’m at this point most qualified — in terms of my high-tech background, my defense minister background — to launch Israel to the next level.

It’s not only about COVID-19. It’s way beyond that. We’re in our fourth round of elections, not because of the pandemic. The Negev has been abandoned; we’ve got these Bedouin gangs that are attacking the people and raped the 10-year-old girl in her home in the Negev. Not because of COVID-19. House prices have gone up throughout Netanyahu’s tenure, not because of COVID-19. The government has become huge and slow and cumbersome at the price of the private sector, not because of COVID-19.

Most of all, politics in Israel, the public discourse in Israel, has become polarized. The bottom line: Netanyahu won’t be able to fix all of this, and I think I will.

That’s why I’m running for prime minister. But we need the public to give me the votes. At the end of the day, it’s going to be either Bennett or Bibi.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen with Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on August 30, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)

Do you share this criticism, made by Lapid, Sa’ar, Gantz, that Netanyahu’s so self-obsessed, that his legal issues are so dominant for him, that national policy is being skewed? (Bennett’s first job in politics, from 2006-8, was as chief of staff to Netanyahu, who was opposition leader at the time.)

I don’t know what goes on within one’s mind. I can only look at actions. On that basis, the past year has been terrible. When I was fighting [as defense minister] to introduce much wider testing back in March 2020, the Health Ministry and him were vehemently against it for some weird reason; maybe because Bennett came up with it. When I put down a plan on March 29, almost at the beginning [of the pandemic], that basically included everything that now we know needs to be done — testing at Ben Gurion Airport; ramping up testing, tracing and isolation; the whole thing — he didn’t take a look at it.

When the new government was being formed [last May], I sought the position that no one wanted, which was health minister. I didn’t look for the cocktails of the Foreign Ministry. I think the reason he didn’t adopt the plan was: Bennett might succeed too much. (In the event, Netanyahu left Bennett and Yamina out of the coalition altogether; Bennett went into the opposition “head held high,” accusing the prime minister of surrendering to the left by refusing to commit to extending Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank.)

Education Minister Naftali Bennett gives a statement to the media, outside his home in Ra’anana, June 2, 2019, hours after being fired as education minister by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.(Flash90)

So, in your case, you’re saying, his decisions were personally motivated.

His decisions were bad. And after over 5,500 deaths, and after Israel being almost the worst in the world for the number of days of national shutdown, while the government brought the Pfizer vaccinations, which is great, it still doesn’t cover the year of incompetence.

Building your whole national strategy on vaccinations that could or could not have been developed, and that may tomorrow be bypassed by a new mutation and then everything collapses, is irresponsible.

New Zealand and Taiwan and Australia were already out of the crisis eight months ago. They’re managing it. And they don’t need to pray every morning that a new mutation doesn’t develop. Their national security and health and economy doesn’t depend on some biological event happening or not happening; ours does.

We already see there are these new variants that render the vaccinations less effective. It might be a matter of time. It could happen in two weeks or in five months that there’ll be a variant, and then there’s going to be a world run after the new vaccinations.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett at the IDFs Homefront Command early in the coronavirus crisis (Courtesy)

We have to eradicate COVID, and we can. We can learn from the best countries. We’re not the worst in the world, but we’re very mediocre and we ought to have been the best.

We’re an island country — very young, much younger than everyone else: Our median age is 30. We could have done amazingly well.

What’s your take on his allegation that the corruption charges against him are fabricated, that the state prosecution is corrupt, that the police were in league to frame him?

The courts will determine that.

History teaches us that the state prosecution in the past did take down ministers

You have faith in the courts?

In the courts, I do have faith.

But not the state prosecution?

History teaches us that the state prosecution in the past did take down ministers. Like Rafael Eitan. Like Yaakov Neeman, who became justice minister and, yes, they fabricated allegations [against him, and he was forced to step down]. It took years before it was thrown out of court. In the meantime, they managed to prevent him from serving as justice minister.

So do I have full faith there? The courts will decide. I do trust the courts in Israel.

And what about the attorney general, then? He brought the charges against Netanyahu.

I’m saying the whole…

It’s striking, what you’re saying.

I know… Do I think we need a massive reform in the Justice Ministry? Absolutely. Yes. The fact that from 1996 till now, every single prime minister has been under investigation, doesn’t make sense.

We’re talking about Bibi, [Ehud] Barak, [Ariel] Sharon, [Ehud] Olmert and Bibi again.

Israeli attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, left, with president of Supreme Court Esther Hayut, at Bar Ilan University on March 4, 2020. (Flash90)

I support a term limit [of eight years for a prime minister], with what’s called the French law, which says that any allegations against the prime minister during his eight years will be deferred. After he finishes his term in office, it can be dealt with. We’re Israel. We’ve got Hezbollah, we’ve got Hamas, we’ve got Iran. We can’t afford these sort of things. But I support this only moving forward, not retroactively. I don’t support retroactive bills or laws.

At the moment, Netanyahu seems to be winning [in the battle against COVID-19]. I don’t think you’re doing this, but it’s almost as though you’re hoping politically that something goes wrong in the COVID battle, because as things stand, the vaccinations are working, the contagion levels are going down. America is at half a million dead, and it’s 30 times more populous than Israel, so if you make the comparison, we are nothing compared to that rate.

No one fought COVID in Israel more than I did as defense minister. I think the main thing that saved lives was the early insight, back in March, where I told everyone, protect your grandma and grandpa. That was a critical point that Israel was very good at.

Right now, there are 180 countries that have a lower death rate per capita than Israel. (Worldometer statistics on February 23 show Israel with 690 fatalities per million, and some 170 countries with lower death rates — DH.) I want to be like them. I want to be like New Zealand, with 25 dead. I want to be like Taiwan. I don’t want to be compared to the countries who are doing poorly.

And to be fair, America has 300 entry points. Israel has one. He had one job to do: Test. Test people when they land, demand early testing, and a second test upon landing. How difficult is that? The degree of incompetence… In Hebrew, there’s no word, no accurate translation, for “competence.” We need a word for it, and we certainly need competence.

But that’s not the main point. The main point is moving forward.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at a protest against the state’s intention to close the Hilla Project, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on August 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And the bottom line question is, who can unite Israel, who can invigorate the economy, who can create a half a million jobs — because there’s one million unemployed, and only about half of them have a job waiting for them. Who’s got the energy to do that? When I look at myself versus Netanyahu, I say, absolutely, it’s me. My high tech background as an entrepreneur, my background as an IDF commander in the field, in the Sayeret Maglan [elite unit], provides me the skill set and the leadership abilities to do this — certainly when I compare myself to Lapid and Sa’ar, who are adroit politicians, but we need entrepreneurship, we need leadership.

Would you vaccinate the Palestinians?

First of all, Israelis first. Vis-a-vis Gaza, I would create an equation: humanitarian action for humanitarian action. I’m more than happy to provide them vaccinations provided they act on a humanitarian basis, as required by international law, and return our boys.

In terms of the Palestinian Authority, once we’re done vaccinating ourselves, I’m not opposed to that. But we also need to ensure that we use our leverage for them to stop paying terror money, blood money. It’s just crazy that in the year 2021, there’s a government in the world that pays to slay.

Let’s talk about the part of the spectrum that you come from, though you’re also trying to widen your appeal, and especially about the Religious Zionism party, and its No. 3 Itamar Ben Gvir. Would you sit in a coalition with this party? What does it say about the electorate that this party is apparently going to get some 135,000 votes in Israel, with a Meir Kahane disciple, and, also high on the slate, a homophobe? Do you want them to get it?

I’m focused on my own party.

When I was placed under tremendous pressure to run with Ben Gvir, I refused. This was just a year ago. So, you know, I acted.

At the same time, Israel’s a democracy. We have a very wide spectrum, and the voters will decide.

The main thing right now that I’m focused on is my Singapore [financial] plan, which effectively is to double the quality of life in Israel: by slashing taxes, Reagan style; by reducing government redundancy and fat; by requiring the public service to perform high-tech style — being measured; meeting objectives; basically running Israel competently. Again, we’re back to that same word.

It’s not Zionist that young couples and older families are in perpetual economic survival mode. Some of them are leaving the country

In 2003, Israel and Singapore were at the same GDP per capita. Now, if you compare prices, if you take parity pricing, they’re double Israel, because of competent management.

Things have been stuck in Israel under Netanyahu. A young couple here has no future, because you work really, really hard, but it doesn’t add up. You can’t get through the month and you can only dream about owning your own home.

The way Israel’s economy is run today is not Zionist. It’s not Zionist that young couples and older families are in perpetual economic survival mode. Some of them are leaving the country. When Israel becomes a paradise for working people, they’ll stay, not only out of Zionism but because it is truly good here. And Diaspora Jews will come to live here. That is Zionism.

So who’s going to benefit and who’s not going to benefit from my program? Working families. The folks who are not going to benefit are people who dodge working. I’m saying this very clearly. Those who work will benefit. They’ll have much more money left in their pockets. People who don’t work, who decide not to work, won’t benefit at all. In the long term, we’re going to incentivize them to get back into work.

I want to come back to that. But I’m asking you about the modern Orthodox community — and the evident support for people with whom you did not want to associate.

The overwhelming majority of the modern Orthodox in Israel support us, support Yamina, support the notion that a person with a kippa can lead, should lead, because we have a set of values of “the people of Israel, the Land of Israel,” of Yiddishkeit, of bringing our roots forward.

The real difference is not necessarily only in the areas that you’ve been talking about; it’s in the state of mind. Are we focused inward, into our little shtetl, or are we focused outward?

I was born actually secular, but I grew up Orthodox, in Bnei Akiva. Then I went to [the elite reconnaissance unit] Sayeret Matkal, then I became a company commander in Maglan. I wasn’t a company commander of the Orthodox soldiers. I was a company commander of everyone. I became a CEO of a high-tech company. I wasn’t the CEO of the Orthodox staffers, but of everyone. I wasn’t education minister of the Orthodox, or defense minister of the Orthodox, but of everyone. So the ethos of the modern Orthodox is leadership. It’s not to deal with your shtetl.

Would you add another word in there: tolerance?

Absolutely. And “love your neighbor as yourself.” Absolutely.

Former justice minister and Yamina lawmaker Ayelet Shaked speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

I’m married to Gilat, from a secular family. If you look at our party, Ayelet Shaked is secular. Alon Davidi is the mayor of Sderot — of all of Sderot. Matan Kahana who was an amazing pilot and was in Sayeret Matkal — one of the few in Israel’s history [to serve in both those roles]. It’s all about tolerance, it’s all about inclusiveness, it’s all about togetherness. That’s what we’re really about — about uniting Israel.

Not in the sense that we’re trying to fudge the disagreements. It’s okay to disagree. It’s vital we disagree.

We’re right-wing. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud of being for the Land of  Israel and the people of Israel. But [we have] to respect each other.

In my Sayeret Matkal Whatsapp group, about half of the folks are left-wing. Do they love Israel less than I do? No. This whole notion of leftists being traitors and all of this nonsense is unacceptable

I’ve got a couple of WhatsApp groups. One of them is with the founders of my high-tech company. I’m the only right-wing one of the four. The other three are left. One of them was in the Mossad. Another was in Sayaret Matkal, and Michal was in the Shin Bet. They’re not one gram less patriotic than I am.

In the Sayeret Matkal group, about half of the folks are left-wing. Do they love Israel less than I do? No. This whole notion of leftists being traitors and all of this nonsense is unacceptable.

I don’t go there. The easiest thing always, what Bibi did for ages was, you know, the dog-whistle against this group or that group, I don’t go there. I’m more right-wing than Bibi, but I don’t use hate or polarization as a tool to promote myself politically. We don’t do that because that’s not what we’re about. We’re about connecting.

Regarding the right-wing-ness that your left-wing colleagues and former colleagues would criticize you for — not personally, and I’m sure very tolerantly: They would likely argue that your policy on Judea and Samaria is going to cost Israel either its democracy or its Jewish character.

The plan I put forth about a decade ago was for sovereignty over the Israeli-controlled areas, what’s called Area C, while retaining autonomy [for the Palestinians] in Areas A and B, and building good lives for everyone.

We can’t afford a Palestinian state.

Naftali Bennett talks to an IDF soldier at the site of a car ramming attack outside the Elazar settlement in the West Bank,August 18, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

I want to tell you a story about my dad, may he rest in peace: He and mom grew up in San Francisco in the fifties, sixties, went to Berkeley; they were very left-wing. My dad was arrested in a sit-in in San Francisco in the sixties at a hotel that wouldn’t hire black people. And I’m very, very proud of Abba for being arrested there. My same Abba later on made aliya with his family… and later fought for the Land of Israel during Oslo: He was detained for a few minutes by the police, you know…

Demonstrating…?

Against Oslo. And I’m just as proud of that. The idea that the love of Israel is a monopoly of the right-wing, or that the belief in human rights and human dignity belongs to the left-wing, I don’t buy that. Everyone wants the best of Israel. Everyone wants human rights. The desire for peace does not belong to the left. I want peace no less than someone from the left.

We’ve got our tiny land, and we’ve divided it up way too much already. I’m not giving up any more land

I lost my friends in battle. I’ve seen battle many times — from the first intifada, to the second intifada, Operation Defensive Shield [against Hamas in 2002], Lebanon [War], Second Lebanon [War]…

There’s no prospect of a circumstance in the future when it would be safe for Israel to partner the Palestinians to full independence, statehood? Never?

No. As long as I have any power and control, I won’t hand over one centimeter of land of the Land of Israel. Period.

To the full sovereignty of somebody else.

That’s right. That’s right.

So it’s not just security. It’s also the history, the religious connection.

It’s everything. It’s everything. It’s a deep connection to the Land of Israel. We’ve got our tiny land, and we’ve divided it up way too much already. I’m not giving up any more land.

In other words, we would retain control [throughout the West Bank] and we would extend sovereignty to most of that territory…

Yeah.

But the Palestinians would not become Israeli citizens. We would keep the Jewish majority, and they would have sufficient self-rule so that we would still be considered democratic…?

Look, it’s up to them whether they’re a democracy or a dictatorship or whatever. They’re talking about elections, etc. I’m not going to tell them how to govern themselves. I don’t want to govern them. We’re not governing them, effectively.

There’s lots of things that we can do to remove unnecessary friction: We don’t need too many roadblocks, or any, as long as there’s peace and quiet. They govern their own education system, tax system, sewage, water, electricity. I don’t want to govern them. They’ll govern themselves.

Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman and Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett stand in front of a map created by the Yesha Council purporting to show the exact borders of the Palestinian state envisioned by the Trump plan during a Yamina faction meeting in the Knesset on June 1, 2020. (Courtesy)

However, the meaning of “a state”, and the reason why I so vehemently oppose a state, is not only that in the longer term it’ll become another terrorist state like Gaza, but also because it means that they control the borders.

And if they control the borders, they can allow in millions of descendants of the Palestinian diaspora. There’s about six to eight million — in Syria, in Lebanon, all across. And then in one fell swoop, the demographic advantage that the Jews created over the past 130 years would be erased.

When two million Palestinian descendants come from Lebanon and Syria into Judea and Samaria, supposedly, and come to their brothers and sisters in Nablus, and say, hey, my brother, could you give me a bit of land, their brothers and sisters will say, Wait, wait, wait. You were not born here. Your great grandfather was born in Haifa and Jaffa. Go to them.

Countries normalize relations with Israel because of their own interests, with no connection to the Palestinians

I can already envision the demonstrations on the Green Line [along the pre-1967 line between Israel and the West Bank], on Route 6: “We want home. I want to go back to Jaffa. I want to go back.” And the international community, after a few days of praise to Israel for giving up [West Bank] land, will forget that and there’ll be this international pressure to allow them to “return” to their homes.

Whereas for sovereign Israel’s Arab citizens, full equality?

Oh, of course.

Would you have suspended West Bank annexation, as Netanyahu did, for the normalization accord with the United Arab Emirates?

I don’t accept this equation. Countries normalize relations with Israel because of their own interests, with no connection to the Palestinians.

We’re already losing the Jewish majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

No, we’re not. No, no, no. We know the trends. For the first time [in many years] the Jewish fertility rate is growing, is higher. And there’s aliya we can encourage: millions of Americans, of French. But we need to turn Israel into paradise.

I am going to be the kingmaker. But who’s going to be the king? The Israeli citizen

If I had to boil down my plan, it’s to turn Israel into paradise. And we can.

Everyone calls me “the kingmaker” [since Yamina may hold the balance of power between pro- and anti-Netanyahu parties after the March elections], and I am going to be the kingmaker.

But who’s going to be the king? The Israeli citizen.

Imagine for one moment a country where you call up, say, the Ministry of Health, and within five seconds, someone says, Sir, how may I help you? And where, if you need an MRI and they schedule it for tomorrow, they apologize that it takes a whole day.

The health service is pretty good. The taxes, though… You’ll be lowering taxes?

Yes, I’m slashing taxes. People who pay 50 percent would pay 35 percent. How do you fund it? Massive growth, because we’re also going to slash corporate tax from 23% to 15%. So you’re going to see this gold rush to found companies, to grow companies. Then, instead of wasting the money on paying a million unemployed people their monthly stipends, all the money will go into growing the economy.

There’s all these really ridiculous ministries. We’ve got the Ministry of Intelligence, the Ministry of Strategy. Who the hell needs those guys?And it’s not only the direct costs. These nonsensical ministers actually want to do things. That’s where you’re talking about billions

Secondly, there’ll be a four-year freeze on government expenditure. How do you do it? First of all, you consolidate. There are so many redundancies. There’s three tax systems: Value Added Tax, Income Tax and National Insurance. It could become a single tax system.

There’s all these really ridiculous ministries. We’ve got the Ministry of Intelligence, the Ministry of Strategy. Who the hell needs those guys?

When I was defense minister, I didn’t meet them or want to hear of them. All I know is that about once a week, there was an argument where the intelligence minister wanted to meet representatives from the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet. And every week there would be this tantrum, you know: send me someone. And so they would send some captain from intelligence up to Jerusalem to pay lip service for this B.S.

And it’s not only the direct costs. That’s the small numbers: this guy has a director-general and a driver. But these nonsensical ministers actually want to do things. And that’s where it really begins costing a lot. When they start doing, that’s where you’re talking about billions. All these ridiculous initiatives that are just more bureaucracy, more regulation. And that’s why Israel is stuck. We can turn Israel into paradise.

And we have part of a population sector where many don’t work.

That’s correct.

You’ve edged close to the issue of the ultra-Orthodox already in this conversation. Be specific. Would you require national service or military service for the ultra-Orthodox, and what about their role in the workforce?

The army doesn’t really need the Haredim, but the economy cannot afford funding them

I’ve got a very creative, outside-the-box plan. What everyone’s been trying for the past 20 years is to get them to serve in the Army. I acknowledge it’s unfair that, while I served for many years in the army and my children will, they’re not. Here’s the outside-the-box solution, which I admit is unfair but is incredibly smart. It’s to divorce the two issues of military service and workforce, and tell ourselves, We want to get them to work, and later on, a decade from now, we’ll start dealing with military service. Because the army doesn’t really need the Haredim, but the economy cannot afford funding them.

Within the first month of my government, I would lower the exemption age from 26 to 21. As things stand today, a full-time yeshiva student [who has been exempted from the IDF] must wait until he’s 26 to begin working or go study towards getting a job. Those are the most productive years. So we’re punishing ourselves twice.

What I would do is say, at the age of 21, you’re free to do whatever you want.

You didn’t serve in the army, you’ve reached 21, now go to work for a living?

Do whatever you want. If you want to continue learning Torah, which a minority will, that’s OK. But the vast majority of young Haredim at 21, who aren’t inclined to learn Torah, they’re going to go study for half a year, software or engineering, and get good jobs instead of working in the supermarket for the rest of their lives.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police at the entrance to Jerusalem as they protest against the arrest of a draft-dodging yeshiva student, December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This is something I would enact in coordination with the judicial system — to say that we’re going to do this as a one-time stopgap for eight years, to get them into the economy. This would be the single biggest change in Israeli society, and it’s unbelievable that [Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor] Liberman and Lapid, you know, you bash the Haredim to get votes. That’s not the way. It’s not going to work. Tanks are not going to solve it; brains will.

You’d still be at odds with the Haredi leadership.

You’re right.

Who’s going to oppose this? Liberman and Lapid will say, hey, Bennett’s giving a free lunch to the Haredim. And the extreme Haredi leadership are also against it, because some of them want to retain the Haredim, to almost coerce them to stay in the yeshivot even if they want to go out. But what will be their argument? Will they say, no, we don’t want that freedom? We’re going to refuse to accept [your solution]? I’m not taking anything away.

You’re saying: You can carry on full-time Torah study if you want to…

Yes, but you have a choice.

There’s no effective political way to resist this. The only worry would be the High Court of Justice, and so we’d have to work in advance [with the judicial authorities] because they’d say it’s unfair [to both exempt young Orthodox men from the IDF and then let them join the workforce]. And it is unfair. But as a stopgap measure for a limited period of time…

This is smarter, you think, than saying, okay, the Army doesn’t need you, but at least you need to carry out some form of national service?

I support that approach. But that’s a very, very long-term move. Israel cannot afford to fund such a big group that doesn’t work. We just can’t. The plan is to turn Israel into a paradise for working people. We cannot afford to support people who can work and decide not to work.

I’m going to take my leverage and force a sustainable, good, effective national government, and do everything I can to move the baton from Bibi to our generation

If all else is equal and you are the kingmaker, and it can be Lapid or Netanyahu, who would you go with?

I’m going to form a government with national values, of the national camp. Lapid cannot become prime minister. There’s no political [constellation]. It doesn’t work out. And he knows it. Lapid is not going to be the next prime minister, period. (On Wednesday, Bennett definitively ruled out sitting in a coalition headed by Lapid — DH.)

So the real battle is will Netanyahu continue or will the next generation, meaning Bennett, become the prime minister. (In Channel 12’s latest survey on Tuesday, Netanyahu was the preferred choice as prime minister for 31% of respondents, followed by Lapid on 20%, Sa’ar on 15%, and Bennett on 13%. Israelis don’t vote for a prime minister, however, but for a party, and party leaders begin coalition-building efforts as soon as the election results are in — DH.)

Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett seen with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, after the Draft law passed unanimously in the Knesset, March 12, 2014. (Flash90)

Bennett, with Netanyahu as a junior partner if necessary?

I think it’s time for him to go. But I am not part of the boycott movement of Lapid and Liberman and Sa’ar, who say that whatever the results are, we’re boycotting the Likud. I’m not going to boycott them, but I’m trying — right now in our interview — to persuade, and we’re seeing the beginning of Likudniks understanding that the only way to get out of this never-ending round of elections while retaining the national camp leadership is Bennett. It’s going to be either Bennett or Bibi.

Rotation with Netanyahu? Only if you go first?

The political mechanisms after the elections are so complicated. I think I’ve proven a degree of ability there, post-elections. I’m going to take my leverage and force a sustainable, good, effective national government, and do everything I can to move the baton from Bibi to our generation.

Relations with the Diaspora: You’re very right-wing, as you are very proud to say. Much of American Jewry isn’t very right-wing. They worry about the human rights of the Palestinians. They worry about non-Orthodox Judaism, its status in Israel. How are you going to address that?

The issue of Jews across the world is one of the central building blocks of my vision for Israel. When I look at the next 50 years, our responsibility is not only for Israelis, but for Jews across the world. And my vision is that the Israeli prime minister wears two hats. He ought to wear two hats. One is leader of all Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike. But he ought to also be the leader of the Jewish people.

My parents grew up totally secular, remote from Judaism. I could have assimilated if I’d had a slightly different family history

Today, it’s almost the opposite. The first thing is to acknowledge that we have that responsibility for Jews around the world. I specifically care about this a lot because of my own background. My parents grew up totally secular, remote from Judaism. I could have assimilated if I’d had a slightly different family history.

I’m cognizant of the fact that especially younger American Jews tend to be way more liberal and left compared to the younger generation in Israel, which tends to be much more conservative and right. I get that. I call that, arguments within the family. How do you solve it? Well, you don’t really solve it. You live with it, and you embrace it.

Here’s what we need to do: Engage, talk, find common goals. Imagine if, this past year, instead of grossly mismanaging COVID, Israel would have managed it right, and then created an international task force of young Jews from across the world, with Israelis, coupled together, going out to various countries and helping them battle COVID successfully.

Imagine if we had pushed, the way we ought to have pushed, the biological center in Nes Ziona [to complete development of an Israeli vaccine], and we were out there sending vaccinations and doing tikkun olam (repairing the world).

It’s not too late. Israel could be a lighthouse. Israel and the Jewish people. They’d come to Israel. When you come to Israel, things suddenly look very different than from Minnesota or Chicago. We’d be able to talk and create.

There was an agreement for a non-Orthodox role in oversight of prayer at the pluralistic area of the Western Wall. It was scrapped by the government. Where would you stand on that? It’s critical to millions of non-Orthodox Jews.

I’m the guy who formed the Israeli plaza. I don’t know if you know that. Back in 2013, every month, the Women of the Wall went, and there were demonstrations there. And Sharansky came up with the idea of forming a third plaza.

Minister Naftali Bennett unveils a temporary platform built for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in August 2013. (Ezra Landau/Flash90)

And I did it. I was minister of Jerusalem affairs and within five days I built it [adjacent to the Robinson’s Arch archaeological site at the southern end of the Wall]. I don’t call it the pluralistic [prayer area]. I call it the rehavat yisrael [the Israel plaza]. I built it, literally. If it had been handed to anyone else, to Bibi, we’d still be talking about it. But we just did it. Boom. It’s still there. And it went a long way toward solving the problem.

I don’t have the recipe for every issue. But I know how to manage this relationship. The one thing I can promise all Jews of the world, regardless of their beliefs, their inclinations, or their anything, is respect and dialog. And that’s what I do promise, while having a kippa on my head. I’m not going to change the halacha, but there’s nothing in the halacha that says we need to disrespect each other.

How would you handle US President Joe Biden’s declared intention to reengage with Iran on the nuclear deal?

We’re not against the Iran deal per se, but the sunset clauses cannot exist. We can’t have the sun set on Israel’s security

We have to be incredibly clear about the vital needs in changing the deal. We’re not against the deal per se, but the sunset clauses cannot exist. We can’t have the sun set on Israel’s security. It’s ridiculous. As it stands, at the end of this agreement, Iran is one millimeter from not one nuclear weapon, but from 20. So you can’t bring Iran to the end zone…

The second part is we need effective monitoring, which does not exist, and we need to cover the weaponization component and not only the uranium enrichment component.

Plus we need to ensure that Iran stops its international export of terror. This is this crazy situation where there’s a republic out there that, while their own people are miserable, they wake up in the morning with a goal to create havoc and misery around the region. And it’s deemed acceptable for some reason.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, left, meets with then US Defense Secretary Mark Esper in Washington, DC, on February 4, 2020. (US Department of Defense)

So what I would do is what I always did when I worked with Americans in the business world, and later in the diplomatic world: be very clear. Be very respectful. We’re not going to agree on everything. But this is a huge national interest for America, because if Iran goes nuclear or if it’s perceived as progressing [toward the bomb], the whole Middle East is going to become a nightmare of nuclear weapons. Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, everyone’s going to go nuclear.

And one of those nukes is not only going to hit Israel, it’s going to hit Europe and the United States ultimately. If there’s something we learned from 9/11, it’s that you can’t ignore festering terror and hope for the best. Hoping for the best is not a national security plan.

I didn’t plan to enter politics to begin with. I had a great life in high-tech. Did an exit and was going to build another few companies. And then… the Second Lebanon War started

You said “I’m going to be the kingmaker, but the people of Israel are going to be king.” I thought you were going to say, People say I’m going to be the kingmaker, but I’m going to be the king.

I definitely am striving to lead the nation of Israel. I want to share with you my drive. I didn’t plan to enter politics to begin with. I had a great life in high-tech. Did an exit and was going to build another few companies.

And then somehow, from after selling a company for $145 million, when I got to the point where I ought to be having cocktails in the Caribbean, suddenly, the day after I left the company, on July 11, 2006, the Second Lebanon War started. And I was suddenly commanding soldiers in some village in Lebanon and fighting Hezbollah. It’s like the weirdest thing. And what I saw in that war is friends of mine injured or dying because of incompetent or immoral leadership.

It drove me almost crazy — how much good people are suffering because of bad leaders. That’s what drove me into politics. I don’t want my people to suffer because of bad leaders.

Then-defense minister Naftali Bennett, left, meets with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, second from left, Judea and Samaria Division commander Brig. Gen. Yaniv Alaluf, center, and other senior IDF officers in the West Bank on January 28, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

I met this again in Operation Protective Edge [in Gaza in 2014] when I realized that there’s 30 terror tunnels, and I saw the entire leadership stuck and saying there’s nothing that we can do. I forced the entire cabinet and IDF to go and destroy those tunnels, and, thank God, we prevented a huge terror onslaught.

The coronavirus is the third time I’m feeling this same feeling. I know that so many people lost their jobs, so many people died and did not have to die and became sick and will have long COVID for many years to come and didn’t have to, and it’s all because of mismanagement, incompetent leadership or immoral leadership. I’m going to do everything to replace that leadership so people don’t suffer because of bad leaders.

Israel thrived before Bibi and will thrive after Bibi. The Jewish people are not dependent on one person. A good leader does not create that sense that everything depends on him

One of the things you’re battling is the psychology: A whole generation has grown up that’s only known Netanyahu as prime minister, and doesn’t know what life would be like without him as prime minister.

You’re right. There’s a whole generation that doesn’t know anything but Bibi and thinks that Israel will not survive without Bibi. There’s nothing more wrong than that. Israel thrived before Bibi and will thrive after Bibi.

The Jewish people are not dependent on one person. A good leader does not create that sense that everything depends on him. A good leader tells the people that the people are bigger than one person, while Netanyahu is trying to instill in our brains that Israel’s future depends on him being in power.

I have news for you: Not only will Israel survive, but it will soar the day after Netanyahu. What he hasn’t done as regards the justice system, he’ll never do. What he hasn’t accomplished in the Negev and the Galilee, he’ll never accomplish. What he hasn’t done to cut bureaucracy, he’ll never do. What Netanyahu has not managed to do in over two decades, he is never going to do. We will do it. In terms of the justice system, in terms of bureaucracy, in governance, in the economy, we’ll take Israel soaring ahead.

If I’m prime minister, you’re going to see Israel take off as an entrepreneurial state. You’re going to see much more unity. You’ll see much more competence in running Israel internally. And you’ll see good international relations. Israel will do fine.

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