Bennett urges US to avoid unilateral steps

Education minister concerned about final months of Obama administration before Trump swearing-in.

November 20, 2016 04:43
4 minute read.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett

Education Minister Naftali Bennett. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Now that the US presidential election is over, the focus has shifted to the interregnum – the 70-days from the closing of the polls to the swearing-in of the new president, Donald Trump.

That period has proven to be problematic for Israel in the past, as outgoing American presidents with nothing to lose have taken steps that angered the Jewish state. Ronald Reagan recognized the PLO as a negotiating partner.

Bill Clinton and George W.

Bush urged new concessions from then-prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, respectively.

Concerned that US President Barack Obama would also take steps Israel does not like in the interregnum, Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett decided to get ready. The leader of the most right-wing party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition and one of the speakers at this week’s Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Jerusalem, Bennett prepared for the possibility that a unilateral French resolution at the United Nations Security Council could advance, with Obama's administration declining to use its veto power.

In an interview at the Education Ministry which he heads, Bennett said if that happens, Israel must respond by applying sovereignty to the large Ma’aleh Adumim settlement east of Jerusalem and building there on a massive scale.

“We are sure that any US administration will uphold the American policy of supporting Israel,” Bennett said. “But if the tradition of respecting direct negotiations is dropped in favor of an aggressive, anti-Israel, unilateral move, we should reciprocate. If a unilateral move is advanced, we should advance unilateral steps of our own.”

He said he was not concerned about what the international community would think or do in response to Israel annexing part of the West Bank. He said the world was upset when Israel de facto annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, but it still turned out to be a correct move.

“I recognize the hesitancy of the prime minister, and Bayit Yehudi is not yet a majority in the government, but this is an opportunity that we must take if it happens,” he said. “We can’t just be defensive. We have to act.

If the UN Security Council defines an endgame, it would be the end of negotiations because the Palestinians would never come back to the table.

No one would buy a car that they could get for free.”

Bennett is also pushing for legislating a bill that would legalize some 2,000 housing units in unauthorized outposts in the West Bank. He said he would advance the bill without fear of wrath from Obama during the interregnum.

“These people are living under a cloud in uncertainty, and they deserve to live normal lives,” he said.

“From our perspective this is right for Israel, no matter what the world’s time line is.”

He was more hesitant when he spoke about Israel’s relationship with the United States. He relinquished his US citizenship when he entered the Knesset in 2013. Before that, he never voted in American elections.

“Our relationship with the US goes way beyond any particular administration,” he said. “In our history, we have had many ups and downs, but America has had a policy of supporting Israel due to our deep joint values.

Now more than ever, America understands that Israel is a beacon of freedom in the heart of the Middle East.”

Bennett never met either presidential candidate and declined to comment about them. But he said he did have advice for the victor.

“I think it’s vital that the world’s No. 1 superpower be involved in the region,” he said. “The region seeks clear American leadership that understands that the No. 1 threat to the region is Iran.”

He said Iran wants to create a massive Shi’ite crescent through Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza and wrap around Israel in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. He warned against sacrificing the effort against Iran to the world’s battle against ISIS.

“We need to view Iran as an octopus putting its arms around us,” he said. “ISIS is certainly a menace, but we can’t have the medicine be more lethal than the disease itself.”

On the Palestinian issue, Bennett encouraged the Americans to invest in the Palestinian economy in a bottom- up approach, rather than pressuring Israel from the top.

“Attempts to try to force an unattainable peace have brought disaster,” he said. “Past experience going back decades has taught us that when there were administrations in Washington who thought that downgrading relations with Israel would somehow buy Arab sympathy, they were proven incorrect.”

Bennett said the Arab world respects an America that shows its principles by supporting Israel. He said the worldview in Arab states and among Israeli Arabs is focused on their own interests and is not as Israeli-Palestinian-centric as some of the world thinks. To that end, he has focused as education minister on giving Arabs a higher quality education. He has made a similar effort for haredi students.

Bennett is also Diaspora affairs minister.

As Diaspora, Jerusalem affairs and religious services minister in the previous government, he created an area near the Southern Wall that could be used for mixed prayer services.

He also supports the compromise intended to create an egalitarian prayer site at the Wall.

“I am disappointed that the Kotel has become a point of strife instead of a point of unity,” he said. “We need to reach out to Diaspora Jews who have different views. I have spoken up about it, but it’s in the hands of the prime minister.”

The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference will take place on Wednesday in Jerusalem. Live streamed at

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