It is hard to rate Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett’s top achievement.
Selling his online security firm for $145 million in December 2005? Obtaining
enough support from secular Tel Avivians to win 12 seats for the
religious-Zionist Bayit Yehudi party that might not have passed the electoral
threshold without him in January 2013?
Perhaps Bennett’s biggest accomplishment
is using smart political moves to become a top minister in the government of
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who did not hide his aversion to his former
chief of staff and his preference that he be left out of the cabinet.
maybe Bennett’s biggest achievement is still to come. In Netanyahu’s government,
he holds three portfolios dealing with seemingly unconnected issues on which he
appears equally emotional. The man known for his knitted kippa now wears many
He is determined to use the former Industry, Trade and Labor
Ministry he heads to lower the cost of living, the Religious Affairs Ministry to
make Judaism more palatable to secular Israelis, and the Diaspora Affairs
Ministry to fight assimilation around the world. Those are lofty goals for one
man to set. But Bennett is determined, confident, energetic – and most
importantly for this newspaper’s list – influential. The prime minister could
not build a coalition without Bennett, and unless another party leader or two
have a dramatic change of heart, Netanyahu’s government would fall apart without
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post
at his office at the
Knesset, Bennett veers in an out of a myriad of subjects, while managing to
sound both intelligent and interesting. And that might be his top achievement of
all.This interview is for The Jerusalem Post’s annual list of the
world’s most influential Jews. How do you feel about being included on that
Good. It’s been an exciting year. My idea is coming to fruition: Creating
a bridge between everyone in Israeli society. In part because of the structure
of the government, I am very optimistic that it can be done. Seventy percent of
the people here agree on 70% of the issues. But Israel focused for too long on
the other 30% we disagree on, like religious wars and the Palestinian issue. We
de-emphasized those issues and focused on what we agree on: becoming a more
Jewish state, opening up the economy, and bridging the gaps in
For instance, [Jewish Agency chairman Natan] Sharansky’s
compromise with the Women of the Wall would have been the subject of an endless
fight in another government. But I see it as a reasonable compromise: No one’s
totally happy but everyone can live with it. This government is about solving
problems and reducing hatred. It’s a good government and I am glad to be a part
of it.These accomplishments came because you kept the haredim out of the
My accomplishment was to bring about a compromise between Netanyahu
and [Yesh Atid leader Yair] Lapid to bring the package together that allowed the
government to be formed. I never vetoed any legitimate party, nor will I. The
efforts I am making to help enable more haredim to enter the workforce are
possible because of the government’s makeup. So is the revolution in religious
services I am working on.
Years of haredi control over religious services
alienated secular people from Judaism. We will change that. We will let people
choose the rabbis who wed them and receive converts with warmth. On all fronts,
it’s a government of revolutions.You said at an economic conference last
week that you only have two years to accomplish your goals. What did you mean by
The way it works in Israeli politics is that you can affect change only in
the first half of a government’s term. In the second half, too much of the focus
is on preparing for the next election, which can come at any time.There
have been reports of fights between you and Lapid on key issues. Has your bond
disappointed you in any way?
Yair and I disagree on a lot: The Land of Israel,
negotiations with the Palestinians, religion and state, etc. But there is trust
between us. Our word is our bond. There will be disappointment. Neither of us
will get all of what we want, but meanwhile we are changing Israeli society. We
are making people realize we have to compromise to get along here. The country
is not all about fighting anymore.Are you disappointed with Lapid’s
The reality is we inherited a big budget deficit. We have to run the
shop well. We can cut the defense budget because there is currently no
conventional military threat. No tanks are waiting on our borders, so we don’t
need so many divisions of tanks. When the world changes, the army must change as
Israel’s problem is that the state’s income is proportional to the
country’s size but the defense budget is proportional to the size of the threats
facing the country.What were your priorities in the budget?
the employment of haredim is very important to me, and it is in the budget. I
consider it a national emergency not unlike a million immigrants arriving from
Russia in the 1990s. Thirty percent of first-graders are haredim, which is fine,
but if they don’t work, it’s a problem. They clobber me in the haredi press, but
when I paid a surprise visit to Bnei Brak I saw these people who want to work. I
have an aggressive plan for 30,000 haredim to be absorbed in the workforce with
on-the-job training, English and math to get them to the level of matriculation
tests. Feedback from workplaces that employ haredim is good. It must be done
with warmth, not hate. We have to not be their enemies. From my perspective,
getting them to work is way more important than getting them to
serve.What else will you do to improve the economic situation?
too expensive. Companies strangle the consumers. We have to stop this. My
ministerial committee on the cost of living has cabinet-level power to work on
changing that. Its decisions can only be appealed to the prime minister himself.
It shouldn’t be that you need connections to get by.
For example, Ashdod
Port workers make up to NIS 60,000 to 70,000 a month, and when anyone has tried
to change it, they strike and we give in. We will open ports like we did with
the Open Skies reform, which will bring down airfare by 30 to 40% and bring in
millions more tourists who now will be able to afford to come. You know me. I am
not against businesspeople who succeed. The difference between entrepreneurs and
tycoons is that entrepreneurs create jobs. Tycoons suck value away, manipulate
and create barriers. We’re going to tear down those walls.
I will also
work on cutting bureaucracy. It takes 212 days to get a building plan approved
in Israel, and just 140 in Syria. My people are identifying pockets of
bureaucracy and destroying them. For instance, import taxes on detergents,
sunglasses, shoes. It sounds small, but my thesis is that there is nothing too
small to fight over. It bothers me that it is easier to live in America and that
some of my friends from hi-tech have stayed there. It’s un-Zionist to make it
too hard to live in Israel.
You are also Diaspora affairs minister and
religious services minister. How are you handling the Western Wall issue that
Diaspora Jews care so much about?
As we speak, I am working on a compromise.
Until last month’s court decision, the Women of the Wall were not permitted to
do four things that start with T: tefilla bekol ram [pray out loud], read from
the Torah, and wear tallit [prayer shawls] and tefillin. I proposed that they
have two, tefilla and tallit, until the third section of the Western Wall in
Sharansky’s compromise is ready. Without that deal I made with them, there would
have been riots on Friday [Rosh Hodesh Sivan]. I told the Women of the Wall that
I am not looking to fight, that I am showing tremendous goodwill. People in
Israel do not understand enough the negative impact on our image of women being
stopped from praying. It brings us huge negative press and damages our image
with Jews around the world. It makes us look like Iran.What are your
goals for the Diaspora Affairs Ministry?
We are just getting government approval
for the salaries to get the ministry working. I think it is a disaster that we
are losing Jews to assimilation at an unprecedented pace. Israel is becoming the
largest Jewish community in the world for the first time since before the
Babylonian exile. I see it as a national mission of Israel to save the Jewish
people from assimilation. Until recently, Israel saw Diaspora Jews as objects
for money or aliya. Enough! We are no longer charity cases. It’s our turn to
help the Jews around the world. Israel has not done enough for the Diaspora.
First of all, I will ensure that there will be no cuts in Birthright Israel and
Masa. Their budgets will even be raised by a little bit, which is a miracle in
such a time. We want every Jew who wants to go on Birthright to be able to go.
Studies have shown there is 40% less assimilation among those who went on
Birthright. We need more programs for young people after Birthright to maintain
the connection. It’s OK to be a Jew in St. Louis, Buenos Aires and Latvia. Not
every Jew has to make aliya, but we want them to stay Jewish.What about
the inequality for religious streams and the lack of civil marriage that deters
many Diaspora Jews from Israel?
We will take it issue by issue and talk in an
effort to balance Israel’s Jewish identity with the needs of the Diaspora.
Israel is the state of the Jews around the world. They also have a say, but
these are complicated issues.Does your partnership with the more
rightwing religious-Zionist party Tekuma, which is controlled by right-wing
rabbis, make such things harder?
I think we have a fantastic faction. It’s the
most harmonious and dedicated in the Knesset. We agree on the Land of Israel and
reached a consensus on the chief rabbi issue. We were chosen by the public to
make decisions in the Knesset. We will consult with rabbis, businesspeople and
security experts. I listen to the rabbis and respect them, but we will make the
decisions.There were reports of an unofficial settlement freeze, that
your colleague from Tekuma, Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, asked
Netanyahu to approve tenders and he said no. Also, planning councils in
Jerusalem are not convening. Is there a freeze in Jerusalem too?
not let this government block building for Jews in any part of Israel. Former US
president Teddy Roosevelt said to speak softly and carry a big stick. We have a
big stick and we are using it while speaking softly. How can a government in
Israel not build in Jerusalem? We will build in Jerusalem. The Saudi plan and
the Clinton plan all say divide Jerusalem. People who have come out in support
of these plans need to consider the Western Wall, Mount of Olives, City of
David. Where will the Palestinians’ capital be? How has it gone when you’ve
tried to tell international figures that a Palestinian state is not inevitable?
Over the past few months, I have met many foreign ministers and diplomats. I was
astonished to hear that no one is making the case against a Palestinian state
for them. Then we are surprised when the world wants to inject a Palestinian
state inside Israel. I have a long journey to persuade the Israeli public to
look for alternatives. There are many alternatives. If you hit your head on the
wall for 20 years and you get thousands of deaths, doesn’t it make sense to try
something else? The Economy and Trade Ministry is Israel’s economic foreign
ministry, with trade offices around the world. The people our trade offices meet
with couldn’t care less about the conflict. It’s not among their top 30
priorities. The real story about the conflict is that it’s a
non-story.You were dealt a blow by Yesh Atid, which did not endorse your
effort to initiate a Basic Law on a referendum on giving up land in statutory
Israel. Is there still hope to pass it?
I hope we succeed in getting it
through. Requiring a referendum fits with our goal of minimizing the arguments
inside Israeli society and the government.
I think we can have
disagreements but live with them. I think it would be a disaster to have a
Palestinian state in the heart of Israel, while other coalition parties
disagree. A referendum is the way to deal with that.The security
situation in Judea and Samaria is getting worse. How do you propose to deal with
There has been a significant downturn in security for the Jews living in
Judea and Samaria. Rocks are being thrown at cars. I have devised a plan that I
am submitting to the Defense Ministry and IDF. I want to change the rules for
opening fire. Right now people cannot defend themselves. I want anyone in danger
of being harmed to be able to defend himself. Rocks kill. In conflict areas
there should be more forces, more checkpoints, more operations going into more
Arab towns. What is happening is not merely a violation of order. It’s
terror.How are you handling the situation with the Beduin?
This is a
ticking time bomb we can neutralize. It’s a difficult issue, and there must be a
compromise. They are spread illegally throughout the Negev. On the other hand,
they are human. They can’t live in the sky. They will be in communities built
Those with legitimate claims will receive land. But we won’t
let the Negev be lawless. You can’t leave cars in the Negev for an hour now
[without fear of them being stolen]. There will be an arrangement reached that
is dependent on ensuring that the law will be enforced.What is your red
line on Iran? Should Israel have already bombed Iran?
Netanyahu has impressive
achievements in persuading the world to impose sanctions. The sanctions are
making progress. But Iran is pushing forward, accelerating the pace of uranium
enrichment, and moving centrifuges underground. You don’t do that if you’re not
creating a nuclear weapon. By no means can we accept an Iranian bomb. By no
means can we outsource our security to anyone else. If [America] takes care of
the situation, that would be good. But we did not come here to a Jewish state to
rely on others.I support Netanyahu and his red line.
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