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Naftali Bennett’s big bet

Despite an Israel riven with divisions, a relaxed former prime minister sees ‘many years of unity governments’ ahead. Will he be a part of them?

RA’ANANA, Israel — In recent months, Naftali Bennett has met with members of Congress, sat for a one-on-one meeting with UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi and appeared on major American networks defending Israel’s recent operation in the Gaza Strip.

But Bennett, 51, is no longer Israel’s leader. He’s not even in the government. 

“The passion of my life, beyond my core family, is the State of Israel,” Bennett told Jewish Insider in a wide-ranging interview at his home in Ra’anana earlier this month. “That’s what I care about. God bless, I’ve been successful in business and money has never been a driver… I don’t care about material stuff. I care about the State of Israel and the Jewish people.” 

Bennett was quiet in the months after the collapse of his unity government, which had surprised observers at the time of its creation for its inclusion of both right-wing Jewish parties, such as Bennett’s Yamina, and the Islamist Ra’am party led by MK Mansour Abbas. But the coalition’s diversity was also its weakness, and eventually its downfall: Discontent with some of the government’s moves, MK Idit Silman, a member of Bennett’s own party, quit the coalition, sparking a domino effect of departures that brought down the government, triggering the November election that saw Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resume power. Silman was rewarded by Netanyahu and now serves as minister of environmental protection.

Incoming Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid attend the first meeting of the new government on June 13, 2021 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Now, nearly a year later, Bennett has begun speaking publicly — to Jewish groups, elected officials and media outlets, among others — about issues ranging from his vision for the future of Israel to the high-tech sector.

No longer flanked by aides, Bennett, clad in a dark blue shirt and black slacks on the day of the interview, opens the door and welcomes visitors to his still-heavily guarded home set on a quiet street in the middle of the small city. The family dog trots around the house. Once settled on his back patio, Bennett sips water as he speaks about his time in the Prime Minister’s Office.

“What I am preaching is for an era of unity and using the 70% rule that I coined, which is 70% of the people agree on 70% of the issues,” Bennett explained. “You know, we need better education, less traffic jams, lower costs. And they disagree on 30% of the contentious issues. So let’s focus on the 70% and shelve for a while the 30%. We don’t have to solve all problems. And what I’m preaching for is unity, or even a lower goal of respecting each other and being able to keep the Zionist project together.” 

A united government, he said, is “really the only way forward.”

“I think in the short term, over the next year or two, we’re going to go through a tough period, which we’re going through right now,” Bennett said. “After which I think the big lesson that’s going to be imprinted on the minds and hearts of Israelis is that we have to be together, a bit similar to what was imprinted during [the] Oslo [Accords]: that we can’t tear up the land of Israel, we can’t divide it. So now the big lesson is we can’t divide the people of Israel.”

*****

During Israel’s five-day military operation in Gaza this month, Bennett appeared on CNN, where he pushed back on an interviewer’s claims that Israel targeted civilians in its strikes on weapons depots. “There’s no method that is more cowardly” than Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s use of children as human shields, Bennett told anchor Isa Suares. “Shame on them,” he added.

Bennett spoke to JI before the military operation, but hours after Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired several rockets into Israel, about his efforts to improve daily life for Gazans. While prime minister, he greenlit thousands of work permits for Gazans to enter Israel, despite pushback from the Shin Bet, Israel’s security service. Starting with 2,000 permits, the government had issued 20,000 permits by the time of its collapse. 

“My supreme interest is Israel’s national security. The bottom line is [that] it provided — and still provides — a huge incentive to not go to war and not shoot rockets at Israel,” Bennett said before ticking off the numbers. 

A Gazan working in Israel, he explained, earns 10 times more than a Gazan working in the Strip, and bears the financial responsibility of supporting, on average, three and a half families. Each family, Bennett suggested, consists of five to six people. With 20,000 permits issued, he suggested, 70,000 families — or over 400,000 people — benefit from the earnings. 

“That’s about almost a quarter of the people in Gaza [who] are directly impacted positively by those folks who work in Israel,” he said. “It immediately raises their standards of living. And then Hamas, when Hamas fiddles with the idea of shooting rockets, it thinks 1,000 times before, because contrary to what people think, Hamas does have to consider public opinion in Gaza and and folks just simply say, ‘Don’t mess with our livelihoods.’” 

The calculations may have paid off: Hamas sat out the latest skirmishes between Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a statement to the press he will not take part in the coming general elections on June 29, 2022 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

When he became prime minister in June 2021, Bennett said, he asked civil administration authorities for a list of measures that could be taken to improve life for the Palestinians.

“My point is to quantify and to measure and to see what are all the areas [in which] Palestinian people are paying some price for no good reason, and just remove them and make their lives better,” he said. “It’s not going to be perfect. I’m not able to provide them [with] their full dreams of a Palestinian state, etc. But that doesn’t mean I don’t do anything.”

*****

Bennett, whose early success came from the tech world, brought a business-like atmosphere to the Prime Minister’s Office. But before he started his first company, he was a soldier in the IDF’s Sayeret Matkal special reconnaissance unit who was at times stationed in Israel’s north.

It was during that time, he told JI, that he studied for Israel’s Psychometric Entrance Test (PET).  Bennett scored a 776 out of 800 on the exam, he confirmed to JI.

After leaving the army, Bennett, whose parents were Americans who made aliyah, moved to the U.S., where he started Cyota, his first tech company, eventually selling the business for $145 million. The lessons he learned in the business world and military would come in handy in the Prime Minister’s Office.

“He ran [the Prime Minister’s Office] both like a business, but also like a war room in the military,” one former staffer told JI. “He was personally involved in the things that mattered the most. And [for] the most critical of issues, he would open a WhatsApp group and make sure that he was overseeing the issue and how it was being dealt with.” 

On one occasion in early 2022, the staffer recalled, a team assembled to discuss how to deal with the influx of Ukrainians following the Russian invasion of their country, many of them eligible for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, attempting to come to Israel. A hotline had been set up, someone in the room had told him, for Ukrainians to call and receive information on immigrating to Israel.

“He wasn’t satisfied with just hearing answers. So he asked for his personal aide to bring in his phone and he asked for them to give him the number, and he called the hotline the Jews in Ukraine should call if they need to make aliyah. He went through the whole process himself and he noticed that they didn’t have an option available in Ukrainian, and then the wait time was too long,” the former staffer recalled. “He was very, very practical with his approach and he knew that the most important thing at this time, this whole operation, is the accessibility of this one phone number to these Jews who are in danger.”

*****

Part of Bennett’s practicality was in building the broadest ideological coalition in Israeli history, which included Abbas’ Ra’am party. When Bennett was named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2021, Abbas penned the accompanying text.

“In the end, it all comes down to courage,” Abbas wrote. “After four elections in two years, a bold act was needed to unite a country frayed by political stalemate and brought to a desperate standstill. Something dramatic needed to change, but more importantly, someone courageous needed to make that change. Naftali Bennett threw himself into a political firestorm in order to forge previously unimaginable ties between Israel’s left and right, Arabs and Jews, religious and secular. He formed one of the most diverse governments in Israel’s history.”

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, center, speaks with lawmaker Mansour Abbas ahead of the vote on a bill to dissolve parliament, at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, Thursday, June 30, 2022. (Ariel Schalit/AP Photo)

Abbas’ warm feelings are reciprocated.

“I believe then, and now [I] believe more, that Mansour Abbas is a unique leader, unprecedented within Israel,” Bennett told JI. “I would call him the Israeli [Anwar] Sadat, because he, with immense personal courage, he is taking a stand that is highly risky politically, and more than just politically. He’s taking personal risk. And his message is loud and clear: ‘Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. I get it. I want the Arabs to integrate to be part and parcel of the economy, society…. and I vehemently oppose terror.’ Now, I couldn’t say that everyone around him is there yet, but it’s a process and from [the standpoint of] a leader of Israel, what we need to do is embrace him and prove him right.” 

Netanyahu had considered forming an alliance with Ra’am in 2021, which, Abbas later said, gave legitimacy to including his party in a governing coalition. But Ra’am is not a part of Netanyahu’s current government, considered to be one of the most right-wing coalitions in Israeli history.

By “isolating” Abbas, Bennett said, the current government is laying the groundwork to get “more of the [Ta’al party leader] Ahmad Tibis, and of those who don’t accept Israel as a Jewish state.”

“Why would you do that?” Bennett asked rhetorically, adding, “the right wing ought to be embracing Mansour Abbas, and for political reasons, it’s not happening.” 

*****

Bennett is quick to weigh in on the anti-government protests that have spread across the country in response to the government’s attempts to pass legislation that critics say would weaken the judiciary. “What’s going on in Israel is one of the most inspiring events that one can imagine,” he said. “What I’m going to say is something I could not have said two months ago. I can say it now. You see, the Israeli public gave itself a 75th birthday gift of democracy and freedom and deep care for the country. And we’re talking about a generation that was being called, you know, folks who just like to go out skiing and enjoy life. And what you see is — by the way on both sides of the aisle — that Israelis care. But really, the good news — there’s also challenging news — but the good news is that democracy has won. And freedom has won.”

“I don’t view myself as part of the protest tribe or the government tribe,” Bennett, who clarified that he hasn’t attended any of the protests and in the past had expressed support for reforms to the judiciary, said. “I can understand the pain of everyone.”

That pain, to some degree, has extended to Jewish communities beyond Israel, and to lawmakers in Washington.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office at the White House on August 27, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Sarahbeth Maney-Pool/Getty Images)

“Across the board, everyone wants to ensure that Israel remains a democracy, a liberal democracy,” Bennett explained. “Something that I would also want to emphasize to ourselves, to the Israelis, is that the special relationship we have with America, it leans on two pillars: the pillar of interests and the pillar of values. And sometimes it’s viewed as platitudes or rhetoric, but it’s not. It’s true. There’s other countries that America has certain interests with, I’m not going to mention their names and they work, you know, you do what you need to do. But you don’t do it full-heartedly and you don’t do it consistently over decades and decades if it’s just a matter of an interaction and a deal. With Israel, what I see is the visceral love of many people in America, not only Jews, to the State of Israel, beginning with the president himself. President [Joe] Biden simply has a very true and genuinely warm heart towards Israel. That’s a fact. I saw it when we met a few times.”

The government’s effort to push forward its initial judicial reform package, Bennett said, “is not going to happen. The tougher part is that Israel is right now going to experience a short- to medium- term period of volatility, after which, the good news is again, I think we’re looking at many years of unity governments in Israel.”

Whether he will be part of any of those unity governments remains to be seen. 

For the moment, Bennett is staying out of politics, focusing on his family and the speaking engagements that have taken him around the world and across the airwaves. His teenage son Yonatan — who has accrued a sizable TikTok following — will soon begin his compulsory army service. “It used to be that he was Bennett’s son, now gradually it’s turning into I’m his dad,” Bennett joked. “I meet teenagers and they say, ‘OK, nice. Where’s Yoni?’ Especially the girls.”

When asked if he plans to reenter politics, Bennett looks out onto his backyard. There’s a gentle breeze, and birds are chirping from their perches in the trees. “Look at this beautiful garden. It’s a nice day. I’m enjoying my family. If and when things happen,” he said with a smile, “I’ll give you a call.”

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