Naftali Bennett has a bit of a cold when he sits down for an interview with The Times of Israel in his Knesset office on Monday. He may have caught it a day earlier, when he led a solidarity run through central Tel Aviv — designed to show that the streets were safe, even with Friday’s Dizengoff Street killer still on the loose.
Education Minister Bennett’s athletic response to the Dizengoff attack, which was allegedly perpetrated by Arab-Israeli Nashat Milhem, made for quite a contrast with that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who came to the scene of the crime on Saturday night and issued a bitter denunciation of lawlessness, disloyalty and incitement against Israel within Arab-Israeli society. And in our interview, Bennett was strikingly upbeat about Israeli Arabs. “Israeli-Arab society is in a very positive trend,” he said, calling Friday’s attack “an anomaly” and stressing that the Israeli-Arab “mainstream wants to be part of Israeli society.”
In a conversation that covered Palestinian terrorism but began with Jewish terrorism, he was also strikingly critical of the radical fringe of Jewish extremists from whose ranks the alleged Duma murderer sprang.
He warned of the dangers posed by a fringe of Jewish “anarchists” with a radical ideology who seek to destroy the State of Israel and “bring the world (down) upon us. It’s the antithesis of the religious Zionist ideology which sees the state as something almost sacred.”
The Jewish Home party leader, whose ministerial colleague Uri Ariel went to the Temple Mount before last Rosh Hashanah and was filmed saying a short prayer there, firmly rejected any talk of changing the status quo at the Mount, even though he said that Jews are discriminated against in not being allowed to pray there. “In a perfect world, there would be freedom of religion and freedom for all religions to exercise their religion everywhere,” he said. “Right now, we have to maintain the status quo. We have to use common sense.”
He also declared that Israel must permanently maintain overall control of the West Bank. “Anyone who suggests that Israel can somehow defend itself without retaining Judea and Samaria forever is out of his mind.”
The interview was conducted in English (which Bennett, the child of American immigrants, speaks fluently):
The Times of Israel: The Duma murder case (in which three members of the Dawabsha family were killed in a firebombing by an alleged Jewish terrorist) is immensely troubling. And watching film of that “hate wedding,” you see that this is not just a handful of people with that kind of mindset. How troubled are you by a) the killing and b) the wider phenomenon of an extremist fringe?
Naftali Bennett: First of all, I am troubled. But I do want to say, it is a fringe. It is.
The actual ring is in the single figures, the people around it are in the tens, and I would say the sympathizers would be in the hundreds, but only hundreds. The more I learn about them, the more I see it’s troubled youth, that in other circumstances, if they were in the city or something, they might have done drugs or something like that. They were hijacked by this very radical ideology.
We now have to act in two directions. Obviously, whoever is involved in this murder, whether directly or indirectly, (there must be) full criminal (legal) action against them, which is happening. As you know, I backed providing the (security) services with special authority in interrogation.
We also have to act on the education side to get to these kids (in the wider circles). And again, it’s not a big number, but the impact of their actions is huge. We have to pull them out of the grip of these people and get them back into society.
Where does the ideology come from? I’d like to believe that very, very few are capable of murder. But seeing the empathy for the notion, that this was something to celebrate, seeing dozens of people at that wedding, and then hearing from people that they’ve been to other weddings which, well, weren’t quite so bad, but they were singing that song and waving knives…
I’m not so familiar. Apparently the song is a song from the Bible. You can take anything and turn it into a terrible thing. For this fringe group, the murder is only a means. Their end is to dismantle Israel. That’s their goal. In fact, you can see it in what they write. They are looking for the most sensitive issues, you know, the Arab-Jewish issue. They use the terminology: put the oil barrels there and blow them up. So, their very goal is to bring the world (down) upon us. It’s the antithesis of the religious Zionist ideology which sees the state as something almost sacred. These people want to dismantle the state because they think the state of Israel is not legitimate. As I say, it’s very, very rare.
There’s a couple of rabbis at the very fringe that were involved in earlier stages. These people don’t have rabbis. They don’t have any leaders. No rabbi is extreme enough for them.
The rabbis planted the seeds?
First of all, this term, “the rabbis,” infers many, but one or two were a stage in the process of this radicalization.
Should the authorities not be looking at them?
I believe we are also looking at them. They were not involved in any murder, so it’s a complicated situation, but we’re looking at them. As (far as) we know right now, they no longer influence anyone. These kids are like a satellite that left orbit.
You say that in any other society they would have been the drug abusers…
I wonder if there’s something very particular about the fact that, for generations now, we’ve run other peoples’ lives and we’ve sometimes had to treat them in ways that we probably wouldn’t want to treat them because of the threat that they pose. You don’t think that that’s a corrupting factor here?
That has nothing to do with these people, these terrorists. They’re anarchists, essentially. That’s what anarchists do. They plant and create events that can create so much havoc and trouble for everyone. With a goal that’s not about Judaism, it’s about not accepting the Jewish state as it is.
But we’re in a climate where even a member of your own party cannot bring himself to say that terrorism against Palestinians is the same as terrorism against Jews. That’s why I’m asking the question: about whether our ongoing presence in running the Palestinians’ lives has affected our opinion of them and therefore made taking their lives less outrageous than it should have been.
Two things. What (fellow Jewish Home MK Bezalel) Smotrich said is wrong. It’s flat wrong. It is terror.
I would also be very cautious, you know: We’ve been talking now for about ten minutes. In the big picture, there are thousands of Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis and less than a handful of Jewish terror attacks against Arabs. While we certainly have to do everything to eradicate Jewish crime, don’t lose the big picture. We’re in a very violent terror wave right now, and the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, everywhere, have become dangerous again.
So I wouldn’t try and position Israel, or somehow the 500,000 Israelis who live in Judea and Samaria, as a culprit here. Quite the contrary. These are communities of life and of optimism and of doing good. And I support them.
This is an issue. It’s a fringe group. We have to take care of it. It does not represent Israeli society. And, you know what the main thing is? While these are very, very rare events that happen here, the result is widespread condemnation, by everyone. Everyone condemns them. Even Smotrich, obviously, condemns them. He has an issue of terminology. He thinks it’s a standard crime of murder and I think it’s terrorism. On the Palestinian side, when hundreds of these such events happen, not only do they not condemn — I’m talking about officials in the PA — they in fact celebrate. That’s a society that’s been corrupted.
I’m not equating at all. As a Jew I’m horrified to see Jews doing terrible things that I’ve seen the other side do.
Yes, but you don’t measure a society by what its fringe does. You measure a society by how the mainstream reacts when very extraordinary events happen. And this is an extraordinary event. We’ve not seen dozens of them. We’ve seen pretty much two. Right? (The burning alive last year of East Jerusalem teenager Muhammad) Abu Khdeir and this, and that’s it.
What matters is that the widespread mainstream, almost everyone in Israel, vehemently condemns this, which, on the other side, there’s murder going on and they’re just pushing for more.That’s why I think that this emphasis is okay, but we shouldn’t lose the big picture.
I would go further. I would say the challenge for society is not only what it says about its fringe, but what it does.
And we’ve apparently caught the people.
It was very tough. These guys were silent. They didn’t talk, which is why I supported the extraordinary measures that we used to get to the bottom of this.
Are you confident the case will hold up?
I don’t know. I’m not so deep into the evidence, but I trust our courts will bring justice.
Do you think it could have been prevented if some of the extraordinary measures that were allowed after Duma had been permitted before?
Hard to tell. I don’t know. It’s tough to use those sort of extraordinary measures when there’s no extraordinary event that happened, so I’m not sure they could have prevented it this way.
I look at what we can do on the educational side, which is to reach out to these misled and confused youngsters and pull them out of the jaws of this radical ideology.
And this is something practical that you’re doing?
Oh yeah, I’m doing it already. I’m not waiting. We have several programs where we literally send people out to the hills, to reach out and to gradually bring them back into the schools. These are kids.
You’ve had encounters with them?
Not me. I personally have not. It’s very tough because these kids are sort of disconnected from society, (they’re at) the very, very extreme of the educational spectrum. The first stage is spending a few weeks of building trust so the (youth) trust these individuals (sent to reach out to them) and gradually getting them back into school. We’re also doing more prevention in schools, in some of the schools that are more prone to generate these sort of kids, to see who’s on the fringe and make sure everything’s okay.
And after school age? What can one do?
There are very few of them. We’re talking about folks from the age of 13 to 24. That’s sort of the range. Yes, we’re dealing with the entire group. I don’t limit it to the age of 18, even though I’m the education minister responsible for the age of 18. We’re out there.
Let’s turn to the other side, and most recently the shooting on Friday. Are there things that you wish the government was doing?
Everything I have to say, I say in the inner security cabinet. All my suggestions are presented there very assertively. Some of them are accepted and some are not. There has been a shift of gears in the Israeli work on deterrence and punishment.
Here’s the problem. We’re talking about a new sort of terror. Inspiration-based terror. Think of a magnetic wave that’s out there, generated by Islamic State and Hamas and the PA and even unfortunately by some Arab-Israeli members of Knesset. Some of them have also been inciting, unfortunately. And then you have individuals who go out and act. By and large they’re not sent or organized by Hamas or the PA. Hamas and the PA do the incitement.
This is new. It’s a new phenomenon. It started in Jerusalem around the Temple Mount — the big lie. The rumor being spread is that Israel is about to destroy the mosque and all that stuff. But then it morphed into a viral type of terror. The second lie was that Israel was executing kids for no reason. Now we’re in the third evolution. Inspiration-based: You see someone else who murdered and you see how much respect they gain and you see how much honor the society gives to them and their families and say, you know, I want to be one of them. It’s cool. It’s the cool thing to do.
Even as you’re saying that, don’t you find that impossible to comprehend?
Yes, it’s tough to understand. By the way, we see no correlation between socio-economic level and this. In many cases, it’s well-to-do folks. For example, last week in Tel Aviv. This wasn’t some guy from a poor family.
That case is very atypical, whatever it is.
Yeah, it is. But in many cases it’s a social epidemic. We’ve seen these kinds of things around the world. The numbers are a bit down, but still it’s this continuous dripping of terror attacks.
Looking back to 1967, did Israel make a mistake in not asserting full sovereignty on the Temple Mount? It made it very easy for Yasser Arafat to claim that there was no Temple there, because hey, the Jews had liberated the Temple Mount. If it meant so much to them, they’d have…
I’m not going to go back into history and second guess my predecessors. Factually, the Temple Mount is the precise location of the Temple. It’s the holiest place in the world for Jews. It’s the third holiest place for Muslims. And we need to respect each others’ rights, freedom of religion. Today, in a sense, the Jews are discriminated against on Temple Mount. I’m not suggesting to change the status quo today.
I do think that in the long term, Israel is in the best position to maintain freedom of religion for everyone. We’re the only ones who have maintained freedom of religion. When the Jordanians and prior to that the Ottomans controlled these locations, Jews were not allowed to exercise their religion. In Jerusalem and Hebron now, all religions are (able to do so). While we’ve had some very tumultuous weeks and months now, by and large, it’s never been as good for all three religions in Jerusalem.
Except Jews can’t pray on the Temple Mount. In a perfect world we should be able to? If there was peace in the Holy Land?
In a perfect world, there would be freedom of religion and freedom for all religions to exercise their religion everywhere.
But at the moment it’s just too incendiary?
Right now, we have to maintain the status quo. We have to use common sense.
The prime minister stood at the site of Friday’s attack and denounced aspects of the Israeli-Arab community. He was very critical, rather than trying to highlight some of the positives at the same time as condemning the extreme. Are you comfortable with that?
Israeli-Arab society is in a very positive trend. The big picture is good. The dynamics are good. When I look at almost any indicator, this terror attack was an anomaly. I’m not saying that there might not be a few others. Again, it’s fringe. The mainstream of Israeli-Arabs want to be part and parcel of Israeli society. You see it in the economy. You see it in the sort of jobs they’re looking for. You see it in women joining the workforce. You see it in education. There’s a very deep desire on their part to be part and parcel of Israeli society, even in national or civil service.
As minister of economy I went to great lengths to get them into the work force, especially women who were only at 25% participation rate. Now they’re up to 32 and I want them to get to 80. I opened about a dozen employment centers for Arab women across Israel during my two years as minister of economy. As minister of education, I’m doing quite a few things. I started, for the first time in Israel’s history, Hebrew for Arabs from kindergarten, not from third grade. Until this year you started learning Hebrew only in third grade, now they start in kindergarten. I’m building the first Arab college, general college, in an Arab town. The bid is out. We’ll see who’ll win.
I’m very positive about the trends.
Historically, Israel made two mistakes. It wasn’t emphatic enough about bringing (Israeli-Arabs) into economic society and it also wasn’t strong enough against the small group of those who want to undermine Israel. We need to solve it on both sides: bring the mainstream in and be very hard on those very few who want to undermine Israel.
They’re practically begging us to come and enforce law: We want the rule of law in our towns, in our cities. It’s not fair. Why, if I build a new business, why is there protection money that I have to pay, why are there mobs here? They’re telling us, bring the police in. We have to have a police station in every town and enforce the law. You can’t build a society without law.
Netanyahu was quoted recently as saying we’ll always have to live by the sword. I don’t want always to have to live by the sword. As long as we have to, so be it. But I’d like to change that, if at all possible.
I’m the last person who wants to live by the sword. I’m saying it as someone who participated in every military conflict as a soldier, as platoon commander, as a company commander. I served in the First Intifada, the Second Intifada, southern Lebanon in the 90s, Operation Defensive Shield (in the West Bank in 2002) and the Second Lebanon War. There’s nothing worse than fighting in battle and losing your best friend, which happened to me in the Second Lebanon War. No one desires war.
(But look at) the reality of the Middle East, and this has nothing to do with Israel: Look at our borders. We’ve got Hezbollah on the Lebanese border. We have Jabhat al-Nusra on the Syrian border. We have Islamic State in Sinai. We have Hamas in Gaza. None of these players could care less about a peace deal or a certain piece of land. They have a grand vision, a very clear one, which can be boiled down to two words — an Islamic state. An Islamic caliphate. They’re going to continue as long as they can.
‘The Second Intifada was 100 times more difficult than what we’re going through now’
So the reality is that we need to live by the sword. I prefer living by the sword than not living.
The reality, though, is that if we are overwhelmingly strong, if we are overwhelmingly powerful in our economy, in our morals, and in our willingness to use power, our power to defend ourselves, we’ll see less loss of life. If we waver, we will face unprecedented battles and conflicts.
I’m very optimistic about Israel, notwithstanding (the threats on) our borders. We’ve always had difficult borders. When I look at the mega trends in Israel: We’ve talked about Arab society. We can talk about the haredim, who are gradually joining society. Not as fast as I’d want it, but they are joining. Look at high-tech. This year, new investments in start-ups in Israel are equivalent to almost all of Europe combined. That’s unbelievable. What we’re doing in water technology, in medicine, in cyber-security.
You don’t see a brain drain? If the new normal is low-level terrorism, you wonder about its impact. People did not flee in the Second Intifada…
But now it just looks relentlessly bleak.
Not at all. I don’t see any indication of that, any beginning of that. Quite the contrary. Israelis like to whine and complain, we’re very good at that. But when push comes to shove, Israelis stay in Israel. They volunteer to defend our country. And most importantly, they just lead regular lives — (including) through the Second Intifada, which was 100 times more difficult than what we’re going through now. It’s unpleasant, but I think Israelis have built a thick skin in dealing with terror and living with an imperfect situation.
We don’t have suicide bombings now because of Defensive Shield, because the IDF went back into the big West Bank cities?
That’s correct. We don’t have suicide bombings not because they lack the desire to exercise them, but because we don’t let them. Because we get the terrorist in his bed at 3 in the morning, instead of meeting him in Tel Aviv at 3 p.m. I’m not saying it’s impossible to see a few individual events, but by and large, because Israel is in the West Bank — aka Judea and Samaria — we have full operational freedom and intelligence. We know what’s going on, and then we can act. Because we know what’s going, we can act quickly, with a tweezer approach, where you go down and get the bad guys. By and large you don’t influence the day-to-day lives of Arabs in Ramallah or Nablus or Hebron. We’re not walking around there. They lead their lives and we lead ours. Except for when we know specific terrorist information and then we go and thwart it. Our presence in Judea and Samaria is the security shield of Tel Aviv.
And in the foreseeable future, we’re never going to be able to give it up?
And the Americans wanted to believe otherwise?
We all look at the world through preconceptions. All of us, myself included. It’s one of the most difficult things to do for someone to go back and question the very core assumptions of their ideology. But the reality is that anyone who suggests that Israel can somehow defend itself without retaining Judea and Samaria forever, is out of his mind.
And not just militarily?
Also civilian. I’ll tell you why. There’s a myth that you can keep a military in a piece of land when there’s no civilians. It’s a myth because within a very short time frame, the pressures to pull out are so big because you don’t see that you’re actually defending anyone. The reality is that the communities living in Judea and Samaria, they’re the lifeline there. They’re driving on the roads. They keep the light of life there. And if they pull out, ultimately, within months or a couple of years, soldiers pull out.
Israel should never have left Gaza?
We should not have left Gaza. No. But now we’re out and I’m not suggesting to go back. What we did, you see the results. The results are that we were getting tens of thousands of rockets on Tel Aviv. What everyone said (would happen), happened. It wasn’t easy back then, but it’s way, way worse when we have this place that’s shooting endless rockets. Back then, there was this saying, Let’s pull out, but if they shoot even one rocket, we’ll go in and we’ll kick the hell out of them. Well, it doesn’t work in reality. When you kick the hell out of them, quote unquote, the whole world condemns you: Why are you attacking these poor people?
You don’t gain any sympathy for pulling out. In fact, the two biggest hits that we took to our international standing, the biggest hits, were from Gaza. I’m talking about (the) Goldstone (Report). I’m talking about (the Mavi) Marmara. You know what? Operation Protective Edge (too). They didn’t stem from Judea and Samaria. There haven’t been specific huge events in Judea and Samaria that caused international anger.
Well, in Defensive Shield, the false allegation that the IDF had been massacring people.
The death toll in Gaza last summer, Israel is being destroyed, image-wise over that. Even now, with a hundred plus Palestinians dead in the latest terror wave, Israel is being battered over that, even though most of those who have been killed were in the act of trying to kill us.
We’re literally the border between Islamic State and the free world
Look, the ancient and new sport is to apply the same tools that were applied to individual Jews to the Jewish state. You place any state in our shoes, in perhaps the toughest location on earth, with an amazing tower of democracy, with the way we treat our minorities, the way we conduct ourselves, the vibrancy of this House over here, the Knesset, I’m so proud to be Israeli… you put any other country in our situation: no one would act as morally as we are.
It’s very easy to sit somewhere thousands of miles away from here and second guess us. But we’re fighting the battle of the free world. We’re literally the border between Islamic State and the free world. Quite literally. The Golan Heights, that’s where radical Islam meets the free world. The Lebanese border is where Hezbollah and Iran meets the free world. Physically. And it’s tough. And if we weren’t here, you’d see it all flow to the West. So we’re the front bastion of the free world. That’s how we should be presenting it. We’re certainly being treated unfairly. It’s nothing new. It’s thousands of years old.
Israel can survive even with ebbing international support?
I don’t buy the ebbing international support. I buy that in certain circles, certain diplomatic circles, especially in Europe, there’s always antagonism against Israel. But you go to mainstream America, you go to China, you go to India, you go to Eastern Europe, and you see the degree of respect and admiration even, towards Israeli innovation, Israeli entrepreneurship, Israeli values. For example, in China they value Israeli values, Jewish values. I don’t see this ebbing support. The world was against us 80 years ago and we’ve had boycotts since the inception of Israel. I remember as a kid there was no Pepsi and there was no McDonald’s in Israel.
So, what’s Europe’s issue?
In the EU, especially the EU Commission, there’s an obsession vis-a-vis Israel. There’s no other way to say it. I can’t interpret…
As it is fairly clear that Israel is on the front line of the battle of the free world and people who delight in murder, why do they not see that?
‘Let’s see one of those European countries spend a day under the threats that we face’
Well, that’s a question for them to be asked. I’ve never really managed to crack the source of it. It might be guilt feelings from their own history with Jews, the source of the double standard, of the demonization. It’s incredible. Give them a day. Let one of those countries spend a day running this country, or a year, or ten years, under the threats that we face and keeping a democracy the way we are. I want to see them.
The Palestinians will never agree to have peace with a Jewish state?
Well, we know that (former prime minister) Olmert offered them to give up the Western Wall, which is outrageous. The Temple Mount. Split Jerusalem and the country, and go back to the ’67 lines. And they said no. Again and again and again. No to (former prime minister Ehud) Barak. They said no. And Olmert, they said no. It’s pretty clear to everyone.
The Palestinian Authority, it’s hard to find a real entity there now. It’s so corrupt. In any open election, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians in Judea and Samaria support Hamas, which explicitly talks about destroying Israel. I don’t really see the peace deal to be made here.
Instead we have to find a modus vivendi. The one I suggest is to reduce the scope of the gap, of the disagreement. What I suggest is that the Palestinians govern Areas A and B. We apply Israeli law in Area C, the Israeli-controlled areas (about 60% of the West Bank). We can continue to disagree, but at the same time we should do a lot of even unilateral economic work on infrastructure, on industrial zones, on roads, on electricity. The same goes for Gaza.
If I were to decide, I would seek to open up more — all of their infrastructure. Because they’re there.You know, they don’t like us, we don’t like them that much.
I don’t know if it would reduce terror, it’s yet to be proven. You know, Bin Laden was a multi-millionaire so there’s no real correlation between (socio-economic status and terror). But yeah, at the end of the day, by and large, a better economy, better life: a) it’s good in and of itself and b) it does reduce tensions.
And then there’s a bunch of creative thought that we might have when we achieve that sort of quiet. Peace is a big word. The connotation of peace is a treaty that then holds for eternity. We have nothing of such, and I don’t think anyone in the region, whether Palestinian or Israeli or Jordanian, thinks this is viable. Everyone talks about it, but no one really believes it. No one.
So my point is to stop the charades. Let’s stop the charades. Why? Because the charade creates a huge degree of frustration. Because the gap between the rhetoric and reality is so big and that’s where the dissonance creates frustration. If everyone way down, with their feet on the ground, would say let’s be reasonable here, you know and I know, we both know, that we’re not going to reach this Palestinian state peace deal ever, so let’s think of alternatives. It’s the longer way, but the more true way that would ultimately bring peace and quiet.
One last question. As education minister, how do you prevent the creation of the next wave of terrorists? They are being brainwashed right now.
Right. One of Israel’s mistakes is that we’ve not insisted on stopping incitement. It’s always this thing we talk about, but we don’t actually insist on it. We need to put in place much stronger measures to stop incitement at mosques, in mass media, in social media, and also change the curriculum where kids will stop being taught that killing a Jew is a good thing.
How can Israel impose that?
Well, we need to insist on it. We have levers. They have things they need from us. We have things we need from them. We have to begin demanding it seriously, which has not happened yet.
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