Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett emphatically ruled out joining a government led by Blue and White party head Benny Gantz if the latter swept to victory in the upcoming elections.
Bennett, the co-leader of the freshman New Right party, spoke to The Times of Israel’s Jewish World editor, Amanda Borschel-Dan, at a packed English-language event in Tel Aviv on Wednesday evening.
“I would under no circumstances recommend Benny Gantz [to form a new government as prime minister],” Bennett said. “He’s left and I’m right. And I want to promote what I believe.”
His co-leader, Ayelet Shaked, echoed his declaration the next day, though she specified that she wouldn’t mind serving alongside Gantz in a government led by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bennett added that he knows Gantz “pretty well” and thinks he’s “a decent guy,” though Bennett said that “I don’t think he’s a remarkable military leader, to say the least.”
Instead, Bennett gave a qualified endorsement for Netanyahu.
“I think Bibi is doing a fair job as prime minister on economy, on diplomacy. I do not think he’s doing a good job vis a vis Hamas and fighting terrorists,” Bennett said, referring to Netanyahu by his Israeli nickname. Bennett reiterated his long-held goal of becoming defense minister to “fix” the problem.
Bennett was speaking at the latest in a series of events co-hosted by The Times of Israel along with the Tel Aviv International Salon and Konrad Adenaur Stiftung leading up to Israel’s national elections on April 9.
His comments came on the tail of a renewed round of violence this week that saw a Palestinian rocket attack on a home in central Israel that injured seven civilians. The attack was followed by significant Israeli retaliation with dozens of airstrikes on Hamas targets in the Strip, and barrages of rockets from Gaza at Israel’s south.
“I think that it’s unacceptable that it’s been a full decade now that about a million Israelis in the south are living under constant rockets, balloons, you name it. And I know how to handle it, how to fix it, and what I want to be, ultimately, is defense minister beside Prime Minister Netanyahu to fix that situation,” he said.
As defense minister, Bennett said he would implement a “lawnmower” approach to Gaza, in which repeated IDF aerial strikes would knock out all munitions buildup on an ongoing basis.
New Right party’s sixth-place candidate, American-born journalist Caroline Glick, emphasized, when she joined Bennett during an audience question-and-answer period, that these strikes would take place as a preemptive measure.
The air force would eliminate any hint of munitions before any rockets are launched, which differentiates the Bennett policy from the current administration’s more reactionary stance, explained Glick.
Bennett began his career in politics serving as Netanyahu’s chief of staff from 2005, became the head of the settler umbrella Yesha Council in 2009, and has been a member of the Knesset since 2013. Prior to entering politics he served in elite units in the Israel Defense Forces, founded a successful high-tech startup and was CEO of another.
He has consistently run on hawkish platforms, and led the right-wing Jewish Home party from 2012 until this past December, when he broke off to form the New Right party with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
The evening’s lengthy discussion covered a wide variety of topics, but Bennett evoked the strongest audience reactions when speaking on security and Israeli sovereignty in the settlements. He pledged “not to give up an inch” of Israeli land in Judea and Samaria.
The majority of the attendees clearly supported Bennett’s views going in to the discussion, applauding his more hawkish statements enthusiastically. During the Q&A session, many described themselves as foreign-born immigrants who moved to Israel by choice. But the audience was also peppered with activists who voiced opposition to Bennett’s policies regarding the issue of Palestinian freedom.
Several protesters interrupted the discussion, standing up to speak about “apartheid” and the “siege” on Gaza – and were quickly dismissed by Bennett or shouted down by other audience members. Many of them then walked out before the event was finished.
But Israeli security and Palestinian statehood were far from the only topics addressed. Bennett spoke of the importance of forming bridges between religious and secular Israelis – starting from within his own party.
“I’ll say this: if someone’s agenda is all-in secular, we’re not the right party for them. If it’s all-in ultra-Orthodoxy, we’re not the right party. What we want to do is reach a compromise on pretty much everything,” he said.
Still, Bennett stopped short of endorsing fully equal rights for gay couples or those who marry not under the rabbinate’s auspices, or a widespread integrated education system for religious and secular students.
Bennett said he supported “civil derivatives and rights, like taxes” for all couples, regardless of religious or sexual preferences, while stressing that he wanted his children to be able to “marry Jews.” He said he considered marriage an Orthodox institution, but voiced support for the extra-rabbinate efforts of Orthodox rabbis, such as those of the Giyur Kahalacha organization, who conduct conversions. Specifically, Bennett pushed for an easier means for conversion for the 400,000 Israelis, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are today classified as of “no religion,” but who he said “already live like Jews.”
He was also lukewarm on the issue of surrogate parenthood, a process often used by same-sex couples to have children, saying that “I’m not in love with surrogacy altogether. I don’t like the idea of renting your body for money.” Bennett said the party adopted the recommendations of the Mor-Yosef commission, stating that “if there’s a woman who cannot get pregnant biologically, then they can have a paid surrogacy. Beyond that, nothing – but you can have altruistic [unpaid] surrogacy for all.”
As education minister, Bennett said he was also a “big believer” in joint schools where religious and secular students would study side by side. Today, schools are broken down into religious or secular, with different curriculums for each.
“There are a bunch of those schools in Modiin, Ranaana. But ultimately, I believe in parents’ choice. Parents ought to be able to choose where their kids, and what their kids, learn. And it turns out, unfortunately, that there’s a lot of secular parents who want to send their kids to those schools, but there’s not enough religious parents – the religious parents are afraid their kids will become secular, so there’s simply not enough demand for it,” he said.
Bennett, who is also Diaspora affairs minister, was born in Israel to parents who emigrated from the United States in the 1960s. He said that he is “profoundly worried about the chasm which is growing between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. Many American Jews are drifting away from their own Judaism, just because, you know, you live life.”
But, he said, Israel can serve as both a catalyst for, and beneficiary of, a renewed push towards religious identity, particularly through outreach programming oriented toward Diaspora Jews.
“My parents’ generation was attracted to Israel foremost because of Zionism,” Bennett said. “Now what we find is that most American Jews are much more attracted to Judaism first, and only through Judaism, then to Israel.”
“Also, Israel has changed,” he said. “Israel is much more traditional than it was 50 years ago. It used to be very categorized. You were either secular or religious, and now there’s a spectrum, and I think it’s beautiful,” he said.
“I think we’re coalescing into a beautiful culture of Jewish Israeli-ness, and I think it’s wonderful. I married a secular girl – now she’s not a girl anymore — and we’re getting along pretty well after 21 years. It’s working,” said Bennett.