Politics: Naftali Bennett Out-Bibi-ing Bibi in DC

On a whirlwind tour of the US, Naftali Bennett talks to the ‘Post’ about his adventures in public diplomacy, using his own flawless English to unapologetically explain Israel’s views on Iran and the Palestinians.

November 23, 2013 16:21
Naftali Bennett in an interview with Fox News, November 10, 2013.

Bennett on Fox interview 370. (photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)

In the mid-1980s, Israel’s most respected spokesman in the US was its young ambassador to the UN, Binyamin Netanyahu, who explained the country’s positions in tough times with his perfect English and determined defense of the Jewish state.

This week, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett followed in the footsteps of his mentor-turned boss turned rival, Prime Minister Netanyahu. On his first visit to the US since joining the cabinet, he used his own flawless English to unapologetically explain Israel’s views on Iran and the Palestinians.

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Bennett even allowed himself to say things that Netanyahu as prime minister has to be careful about saying, but he can get away with. When CNN’s Christianne Amanpour asked about the possibility of an Israeli military strike on Iran, he did not mince words.

“There’s no one who wants a war than less than us,” he said. “A bad deal will lead to war while a good deal will prevent war. If we have a bad deal, Iran maintains its nuclear machine and inevitably there will need to be military action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

Noting Israel’s 1981 attack on the Osirak reactor in Iraq and an alleged Israeli strike on a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, Bennett said: “Israel has the ability to defend itself, and will defend itself if necessary.”

Bennett also learned from Netanyahu that it helps to bring props and gimmicks with him to the US.

When Amanpour asked about the “occupied” West Bank, he took out an ancient coin. “This coin, which says ‘Freedom of Zion’ in Hebrew, was used by Jews 2,000 years ago in the State of Israel, in what you call occupied,” he said. “One cannot occupy his own home.”

Meanwhile, Bennett met in Washington with dozens of senators and congressmen, US trade representative Michael Froman, and top World Bank officials. In New York, he met with business leaders and gave interviews to top media outlets.

The messages Bennett delivered were coordinated with Netanyahu, in a meeting with him before he left Israel.

He also received advice from Netanyahu’s closest adviser for many years, Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, who accompanied Bennett to his meetings in Washington.

Bennett told The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview from New York that if the tunnel between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan that he was traveling in during the call is destroyed by a bomb in 10 years, it will be because of the deal being negotiated between the P5+1 world powers and Iran in Geneva.

He complained that the deal being negotiated does not require Iran to dismantle its centrifuges. It would ease $8 billion in six months of sanctions in return for halting production, but Iran would not be giving up anything – because the Islamic regime already slowed down enrichment, following Netanyahu’s red line speech at the UN General Assembly last year.

“The deal signals to the world, come do business with Iran because the sanctions are on the way out,” he said, comparing Iran to a boxer who is about to lose a fight but gets put back on his feet.

Acknowledging that what is currently being negotiated is an interim deal, Bennett called for the world to insist in the final deal on the dismantling of Iran’s entire uranium enrichment machine, its ballistic missiles and the Arak plutonium reactor. He said the P5+1 negotiators must already make clear in the interim deal that if Iran does not accept such conditions in the final deal, all sanctions that were removed would be restored.

“No one is answering whether people honestly think there will be more leverage on Iran or less in six months than now,” he said.

Using an an analogy that came from his preparatory meeting with Netanyahu, Bennett noted that Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev only became a reformist after then-US president Ronald Reagan was tough on him at their 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland.

“We’ve been told that [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani is Gorbachev, but I don’t believe it,” he said. “Let’s say he has some Gorbachev in him.

But when Gorbachev brought a bad deal to the Reykjavik summit in 1986, Reagan walked away, even when the world warned it would cause World War III. He only became the Gorbachev we know a year later, after the US ratcheted up the pressure, which is what we believe should be done now.”

Bennett said the current deal would keep Iran no more than six weeks away from being able to assemble a nuclear weapon.

He said insisting on dismantling nuclear facilities would distance Iran three years from the bomb.

When asked whether such a demand was realistic, he said yes, depending on the leadership and determination displayed by the leading nations of the world.

Bennett was careful to downplay disagreements with the administration in Washington, calling it a huge friend to Israel on security and intelligence. He said there were disagreements on tactics but that Israel was influencing the parameters of the deal in Geneva, achieving whatever possible.

The interviewers were tough on Bennett on the Palestinian issue. Amanpour even introduced Bennett to her audience as “Mr.

No.” Whenever he was asked about the Palestinians, he expressed support for economic steps to help them, while downplaying the current diplomatic talks with them.

“People forget that the Land of Israel belongs to the People of Israel,” he said.

“I’m aware that the Palestinians live here and have their aspirations. But Israel is our home. It’s frustrating that no one else talks about the fact that thousands of years before Islam was established, Israel was our home.”

Whenever Israel’s right to the land was questioned and when protesters tried to heckle him at Manhattan’s 92nd Street YMCA, Bennett took out the coin. He said Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, testified to the Peel Commission that the Bible is the mandate of the Jewish people over their land, and lamented that such an argument has not been used in years.

“Values messaging is sometimes better than practical messaging,” he said. “People are inspired by values and heritage. No one has been talking about our right and that’s why the Palestinians keep winning debates.

Justice always trumps practicality.”

As economy and trade minister, Bennett tried to present Israel as the “Lighthouse Nation” that projects light around the world, in fields like alternative energy, agriculture, cybersecurity and medical technology.

“We need to reignite the vision of Israel and inspire the Diaspora,” he said. “Israel talks too much as a country of conflict.

Why do we keep on fighting on that narrow battlefield? With hasbara [public diplomacy], our problem is not money. We’re simply fighting the wrong battle.”

Bennett boasted that CNN technicians told him that what he said in the interview amazed them, and that they “never hear that sort of stuff.” He said people came up to him after speeches to hug him and tell him how refreshing his statements were.

“People are fed up with the messages of [Justice Minister] Tzipi Livni and the Oslo process,” he said.

When asked whether he thought he succeeded in persuading people on the trip that Israel needed to keep all of the land of Israel, he said: “It’s a long journey – a first step, but not an insignificant one.”

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