Israel's Wildcard The Man Who Could Stop The Peace Process
Naftali Bennett, the head of the the settlements party Jewish Home rejects negotiations with the Palestinians and says he will allow the Israeli government to collapse if necessary. A decision on whether talks will proceed is expected this week.
The man who wants to test his power against Prime Minister Benajmin Netanyahu, Israel's popular "King Bibi," works in a surprisingly understated, tube-shaped office with three telephones ringing off the hook. The only thing that stands out is a picture on the wall. Covered in glass, it shows an embroidered figure of a woman wearing an apron dress.
Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, 42, is keen to show that he doesn't hold much regard for the daily grind of political life and that if it weren't for the azure silhouette of his great aunt Zila embroidered in yarn, he might instead still be enjoying his success as an entrepreneur in the coastal city of Raanana. His mother's cousin was Russian and shared the fate of most members of Bennett's family -- who were murdered by Stalin's henchmen because of their Jewish heritage. Her embroidered likeness hanging behind his desk is a daily reminder and incentive for Bennett to make sure it is a fate that his own children never share.
Great Aunt Zila is also part of the reason Bennett, who sees himself as a businessman through and through, has now become a politician. A booming software business in Israel and the United States no longer contented him after a life-changing deployment in the 2006 Lebanon war. At the time, he had just become a first-time father and asked himself, "What is it that these Hezbollah guys actually want?" In Lebanon, he says he learned "they all still have a single goal in mind -- to kills us."
A Singular Mission
Since then, Bennett has had an almost singular mission. When he describes it, he sounds neither quixotic nor pathetic. His voice instead betrays his deep determination to get the job done. "My task is to keep Judaism alive, to make it stronger and to fight its enemies," the economics minister says, adding that he will dedicate his "life to Israel's survival."
As part of his mission, though, he now risks a major rift within Israel's coalition government. The Israeli daily Haaretz recently wrote that the politician is currently doing more to determine the country's fate than any other.
The former businessman is the head of the nationalist-religious Jewish Home, a party that promotes settlement policies, and one of the most vocal opponents of any development even remotely connected to the "peace process". Since US Secretary of State John Kerry convinced the Israelis and Palestinians to begin negotiating with each other again, Bennett has been sparring with anyone who endorses the talks.
Among those he has taken to task are Prime Minister Netanyahu, whom he accuses of weakness. But he has also targeted a man who used to be an ally, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who in an unexpected bout of grandiosity, expressly praised Kerry's efforts. Meanwhile, the alliance with Finance Minister Jair Lapid, the former cabinet star and a man Bennett has referred to as his "brother," has also come undone as a result of seemingly irreconcilable views about the peace process.
It is difficult to see how the Israeli political process could become this polarized considering the relative dearth of recent developments.
The talks moderated by Kerry already mark the 10th attempt to negotiate a peaceful coexistence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And there hasn't been anything that could be described as direct talks since December. Both sides are currently only speaking to Kerry or the chief American negotiator Martin Indyk.
A decision is expected this week on whether even these mini-talks should be discontinued as well. If Israel doesn't release the final group of Palestinian prisoners by this Saturday, the Palestinians say they will withdraw. The release of 104 Palestinians who were arrested prior to 1993's Oslo Accords was a condition for the resumption of negotiations -- a provision Netanyahu agreed to under pressure from the United States.
Bennett, however, is insisting that the prisoners stay behind bars. "We aren't going to allow murderers and terrorists to walk again," he says, speaking in his office. He's also threatening to allow the government to collapse over the issue.
The minister complains that the world is treating Israel unfairly. He says that if the international community continues to raise pressure on his country over the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, over the Palestinian prisoners and over the still to be negotiated withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from a future Palestinian state, he is convinced it will be picking on the wrong side.
'You Can't Occupy Your Own Land'
Bennett doesn't even attempt to cloak his intransigent position in the language of diplomacy. Referring to the Palestinian West Bank by its biblical name, Bennett says "the Jewish heartland, Judea and Samaria," can never be ceded to "the enemies, the Arabs". He says the land has belonged to the Jews for more than 3,000 years and that those who speak of an Israeli occupying force do not understand history. "You can't occupy your own land," Bennett says, with audible contempt for anyone who doesn't share his view.
The party boss and his followers are fundamentally opposed to any kind of agreement with the Palestinians. Bennett says that compromise would be "suicide". His answer to the problem? "We have to remain strong."
Jewish Home is the third strongest party in Israel's government coalition, and whenever Netanyahu offers ideas on a future, peaceful coexistence of two sovereign states that are more concrete than Bennett and his supporters are prepared to handle, it doesn't take long before the prime minister hears the scorn of his former chief of staff.
Although Bennett has since built up a large support base, determined opponents of the peace process can also be found within Netanyahu's Likud party.
Bennett, though, is the first to have succeeded in anchoring nationalist-religious ideology in core government ministries. His views have broad support in a Netanyahu cabinet in which nearly half the ministers live on the other side of the Green Line -- meaning in Palestinian territories.
"I know that my opinion isn't very popular abroad," says Bennett, but he doesn't want to bend either, given that voter support came as a result of his positions.
Naftali Bennett's advantage is that he has never come across as the kind of rabid politician blinded by ideology who might seem more intent to blow up the Temple Mount together with the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque than to seek peace. Instead, when you talk to him, he comes across as funny, entertaining and quick-witted.
Bennett Has Time on His Side
He's also well-aware that time is on his side. Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics has calculated that 2013 was a record year for the settlements movement. Foundation stones were laid for more than twice as many Jewish buildings located on Palestinian territory than in 2012.
Of course, there's another man who is partly responsible for that trend -- settlements leader Uri Ariel, whose day job, conveniently, is that of being Israel's Housing Minister. In his capacity as a private citizen, Ariel is known for organizing mass prayer sessions against peace negotiations at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Knesset recently added a provision to the constitution at the initiative of Jewish Home stipulating that any future agreement with the Palestinians would have to be approved in a nationwide referendum.
Bennett says that the Jewish people are his greatest allies, and polls back that up. Three-quarters of Israelis surveyed share his view that the Palestinians are "not partners for peace;" 86 percent reject the release of further prisoners. Two-thirds of Israelis still say they believe in a two-state solution, but almost the same number oppose withdrawal from the West Bank.
For his part, Bennett feels that Israel's current unyielding position is a service to the country he has provided. He may not be running the show, but he is certainly setting the agenda for parts of it. He argues that Netanyahu doesn't have free hand to just anything Kerry wants, because "I've also got a hand on the steering wheel."
As long as he has a say, Bennett insists he will never permit the existence of a Palestinian West Bank under international control -- not through a NATO force and most certainly not through a United Nations contingent. He says history has taught him that Israel and Israel alone must ensure its security. "We've had bad luck anytime we have relied on anyone else," he says.
Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey