Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett has a canned answer for when he’s asked which ministry he wants: It depends on how many seats his party gets.
When pushed further, he says that all three senior ministries – defense, finance and foreign – are important, and he has a “clear vision” for what he could do in all of them.
Despite his politically expedient responses, the current economy minister couldn’t hide the fire in his eyes when he talked about defense issues Thursday, in his Tel Aviv office. His passion for and emphasis on security matters was apparent, backing up what sources in his inner circle have been saying for months: Naftali Bennett wants to be the next defense minister.
Bennett called for “a deep change” in the defense establishment’s approach, starting with making sure that battles take place mostly in enemy territory and military operations are short, as opposed to last summer’s 50-day Operation Protective Edge.
“We have to go from the defensive to the offensive. We fell in love with the Iron Dome [missile defense system] too much, and it gave us a feeling that it’s okay for a war to continue for 50 days. It isn’t,” he said, calling it “unacceptable for Hamas to shoot at us for 50 days. That harms our deterrence.”
Bennett repeated his claim, which is a point of contention with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, that he was the first to bring a plan to destroy Hamas’s terrorist tunnels to the security cabinet – which he did on June 30, with the IDF implementing it three weeks later. Ya’alon says the Defense Ministry and the IDF already knew about the tunnels, and had prepared strategies for eliminating them.
Bennett also brought up defense in describing his battle with the Likud over right-wing votes, saying a large Bayit Yehudi is necessary to bolster Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ensure he is faithful to the Right, which will have voted him in if he is reelected.
The Bayit Yehudi leader took a wider view of the Middle East, saying the entire region is “disintegrating” and pointing to Jabhat al-Nusra, Hezbollah and Hamas as threats flanking Israel on almost all of its borders.
“This can go on for five years, or 150; no one knows. The question is what we do in this environment. I’m optimistic and I think Israel can continue thriving, but what we have to do is never give up one centimeter to Arabs, make sure the IDF is stronger than all of our enemies, and restore our Jewish identity, values and spirit of optimism and pride in being Jewish. With these three together, we’ll be able to prevent as many wars as possible, because it won’t be worthwhile for our enemies to fight us,” he maintained.
To implement his plan, a large Bayit Yehudi is necessary, Bennett posited, warning that if it isn’t, “it will be a disaster.
There won’t be anyone strong around Netanyahu to make sure we’re heading in the right direction.”
“Netanyahu needs us to be strong next to him. He’s a good guy; I respect him. His heart is in the right place, but we need a strong nationalist government to ensure he doesn’t steer us to the Left, because of international pressure and domestic pressure from the media and economy,” he explained.
Bennett said he is sure Netanyahu will form the next government, but expressed doubt as to whether the prime minister will keep to the public commitments he made to include Bayit Yehudi in it. He was cautiously optimistic about his party’s improvement in the polls, pointing to this week’s Jerusalem Post-Ma’ariv poll giving his party 13 seats, as opposed to 11 last week.
Bennett went on to recount how Netanyahu has brought left-wing parties into his last two governments – Labor in 2009 and Hatnua in 2013 – and how he does not want him to do the same thing again.
The Bayit Yehudi chief said that with 12 seats in the last government, the party played a critical role in putting an end to the release of Palestinian terrorists in exchange for peace talks.
Bennett also combated the perception that terrorists were being released in the first place, because he chose that option over a settlement freeze as a necessary concession to condwuct talks with the Palestinians.
“We opposed a settlement freeze and a terrorist release. We voted against it, while all the other parties supported it – including the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu,” he said – though in both parties, some ministers voted for and some against.
“But it still passed, and we decided not to leave the government. When it came to releasing Israeli-Arab terrorists, we said enough is enough,” he added.
He further credited Bayit Yehudi MK Ayelet Shaked’s law severely limiting the possibility to release terrorists convicted after its passage with “bringing an end to the paradigm of releasing terrorists... We changed the approach.”
When asked what kind of concessions he would be able to accept without leaving the next coalition, Bennett responded: “It’s a mistake that there’s always an assumption we have to concede something.”
According to Bennett, his party’s message is starting to resonate: “For the past 20 years, Israel covered itself with a veil that pushed us in the wrong direction – toward land concessions and post-Zionist views in the legal system – and we are the only ones who can lift it. We’re going back to basics; we’re proud of loving our country, people and Torah.”
Though Bennett unequivocally opposes territorial concessions, he doesn’t think the Palestinians should be ignored, and proposed what he called a Marshall Plan for the region.
“I don’t hate Palestinians. I want them to have a good life; that’s in our interest, too.
Just because we won’t have a peace agreement with them doesn’t mean we can’t improve their quality of life through tourism, industry, imports and exports. No one is building what they need on the ground, because they want there to be a state first,” he explained.
As for the Israeli economy, Bennett saw his last two years as economy minister as another example of why the Left regaining power would be dangerous, saying he worked to open markets in cement and agriculture and lowered food prices by 5 percent – but that the Zionist Union is a slave to the Histadrut labor federation and agriculture lobbies.
“The right direction on the economy is an open one, where competition reduces prices,” he said. “My rivals, [Yesh Atid leader Yair] Lapid and [the Zionist Union’s Amir] Peretz, want to set prices for 300 products. That would be a huge mistake; it would prevent competition. We need a free and open, competitive economy.”
Bennett also said he was proud of eliminating many import regulations – just last week he canceled one that made it illegal to sell soy milk unless it is called “soy drink,” not milk, which was put in at the prodding of major dairy manufacturer Tnuva – and enacting regulatory impact assessment as a necessary step for passing any new ones.
As for the housing crisis, Bennett said the solution is to build tens of thousands of homes a year, as Construction Minister Uri Ariel has done in the last two years.
It takes time and a lot of work, not populism – like that employed by Lapid’s zero value-added tax proposal for new homes, he added.
Bennett would love for more homes to be built in the West Bank, pointing to the area near Rosh Ha’ayin and Ariel as promising in that it is near the Center and has many open spaces, but said his party was limited in what it could do – and that the government doesn’t allow for it out of fear.
“We need to stop being scared; the fear makes them threaten us more. This is a tough neighborhood and the world smells fear,” he contended.
The economy minister also touted his successes in connecting Israel to Asian markets, especially China, India and Japan.
“If we want to grow our commerce, we have to diversify and we have to lower our dependence on any specific market, like Europe,” he stated.
Bennett looked toward Europe with consternation while wearing his other hat – of Diaspora affairs minister.
“Israel has a strategic challenge with some countries in Europe. It has nothing to do with Judea and Samaria, it has to do with the Islamization of some states – which are undergoing consistent radicalization, both demographically and in public opinion,” he said.
Bennett said Israel welcomes any Jew who wants to come to Israel for any reason, but he also respects that it is their decision and called on the governments in Western Europe to take the steps necessary to fight anti-Semitism and the violence it engenders.
“I’m very concerned about the future of Jews in Western Europe,” he declared.
“I see that in some countries, political correctness took over the media and the government and… they won’t say that it’s Islamic terrorism. They just say ‘terror,’ like it’s something general. If you won’t define the problem, you can’t fight it.”
According to Bennett, Israel can be “a light unto nations” when it comes to fighting terrorism, and if Europe does not wake up and fight soon, it will not be able to reverse its impact.
Meanwhile, Bennett would like the next government to prepare to accept waves of immigration from Europe, and said he will condition Bayit Yehudi joining the next coalition on the formation of an “emergency aliya cabinet.”
Such a cabinet, which Bennett said he would like to lead but will not demand, would include the ministers whose portfolios create red tape – including Health, Education and Justice – which do not always recognize new immigrants’ credentials.
“This is an emergency situation and a historic opportunity, because many Jews are leaving Europe. We can’t blow it. It can enrich us the way Russian aliya did 20 years ago,” he added.
BENNETT’S CONVERSATION with The Jerusalem Post took place three days after senior citizens minister Uri Orbach died of a blood disease from which he had been suffering for over two years.
The Bayit Yehudi leader credited Orbach with inviting him in to the party, and having the vision to expand Bayit Yehudi from “a lobby for religious interests” to one that is “for all the people of Israel.”
Bennett, who is now taking up the vacant post of senior citizens minister, said Orbach “was the first to care after years of no one doing anything, bringing back senior citizens’ dignity.
“Orbach looked at pensioners as an opportunity, not as charity cases. He has a lot of legacies that we will continue, but the first is to deal with senior citizens as one of Bayit Yehudi’s flagships,” Bennett vowed.