Naftali Bennett is the newly elected leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party. He was Benjamin Netanyahu's chief of staff between 2006-2008, and ran Netanyahu's successful 2007 campaign to lead the Likud party. He also served as as Director General of the Yesha Council of Settlers for two years. The third in a series of conversations with Israeli politicians leading up to the January elections. Part I, with Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz can be found here, and Part II, with Meir Sheetrit of The Movement, is here.
What is the main topic or theme of the upcoming elections? Is it Iran? The peace process? The economy? What do you think is the real worry of the Israeli public today?
Values. Restoring Israel's Jewish identity. More than half of Israel's new soldiers have never visited the Kotel! How can we expect to beat our enemies, if our kids don't know who King David or Yoni Netanyahu is? We must return to our basic values of caring for others, respecting teachers, being strong against our enemies. It all starts from within.
In this context, what is the markedly unique message that your party has to offer to the public?
Overall our party presents a patriotic proud Jewish message. We will restore Jewish identity into the public education system. Children will have the opportunity to connect with their proud and heroic history, to visit the Western Wall, learn of Jewish Heroes past and present, understand the struggles and sacrifices of Jewish yesteryear and ultimately, when our modern Maccabees join the IDF, understand who they are defending and what they are a part of as Jews in the Jewish State.
From a security standpoint, we have already differentiated ourselves from other parties in our refusal to negotiate with terror. During Operation Pillar of Defense, we were the only party who opposed a temporary ceasefire and pushed for decisive action. There was widespread consensus amongst Israelis that the IDF needed to deal a more powerful blow to Hamas and that simply did not happen. We have the best armed forces in the Middle East, but at the end of the day, both in Gaza and Lebanon they were constrained by the decision makers which did not allow them to fully accomplish their goals on the ground.
Economically, we are the only party who can and will stand against the monopolies and unions which currently protect their own interest groups at the expense of greater Israeli society. Ninety-nine percent of businesses in Israel are small businesses, and the unions don't protect them, but raise the overall price of living. Meanwhile, Israel has a growing housing bubble with rental prices continuing to rise. To alleviate this, government land holdings must be privatized and we can no longer afford to limit building in the major suburbs of Israel's commercial centers, including Judea and Samaria.
What would be the best coalition for Israel after the election, and do you think your party should consider joining a coalition headed by someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu, such as Shelly Yacimovich or Tzipi Livni?
This election is unique in its essence, as the projected winner is clear, but the overall outcome is still up in the air. Undoubtedly, Benjamin Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister of Israel, as he is poised to win by a landslide. The only question is: who will influence him, and what'll be the government's DNA? Our preference is for a strong patriotic coalition which will recognize that, religious or secular, Tel Aviv or Maaleh Adumim, we are One Israel and that we must act in our own interests to further Israel's economy, security and restore its Jewish identity. As of now, it's still too early to comment on specific coalition configurations.
What kind of relationship would you expect the next prime minister to have with President Obama? How would you improve U.S.-Israel relations during President Obama's second term?
President Obama is the US President and on January 23rd, the day after elections, Benjamin Netanyahu will still be the Prime Minister of Israel, so I don’t foresee the relationship changing drastically. Overall, the US and Israel share many vital interests and common goals, so undoubtedly our two countries will continue to work closely together in a spirit of steadfast friendship.
US-Israel relations are not solely encompassed by the working relationship of the Prime Minister with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Israel, and the Knesset, has strong allies on both sides of the aisle in Congress and the Senate and we must continue to further enhance these relationships.
Over the last four years there have been differences between the two administrations and in recent days, we heard escalatory comments from President Obama's former Chief of Staff regarding proposed construction in E-1. But how can we expect a better reaction to building in Judea and Samaria when we continue to call it "disputed territories"? As long as we continue to send the US administration mixed messages about our policies regarding the PA, Judea & Samaria, and the peace process, we cannot sincerely expect a more coordinated or constructive response.
Do you think American Jews should take sides in Israeli elections, or just support the winning coalition after the event? If you do think American Jewry should have a voice, what kind of involvement and support do you have in mind?
I think all Jews have the right to care about Israel's future, including its political future. I wouldn't suggest to get too involved, but rather to just support Israel itself, regardless of its leadership. It's time re-think this special relationship. I think American Jews are much more than an ATM. Israel has a responsibility towards all Jews in the world, and we haven't really stepped up to the plate on this. This will be a central focus for me.