Education Minister Naftali Bennett has invested in Arab schools, boosted teaching Arabic to Jewish children and Hebrew to Arabs, wants to expand infrastructure and economic development for West Bank Palestinians, defends LGBTs and hopes his Bayit Yehudi party will have its first non-Jewish MK.
So much for the right-wing, religious extremist image he has been given by the Israeli satire shows Gav Ha’uma and Eretz Nehederet.
Bennett has been pushing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the Right on key issues. The prime minister often shifts rightward and copies Bennett after statements by the Bayit Yehudi leader gain political traction.
Yet Bennett has also given a cold shoulder to the politicians in the hawkish National Union party that ran with Bayit Yehudi in the last election. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and MK Bezalel Smotrich were not invited to a September 26 Bayit Yehudi convention despite the fact that Bennett and Bayit Yehudi MKs were invited to a National Union convention two weeks earlier.
Netanyahu spoke to the National Union convention by video from abroad, but Bennett did not bother acknowledging the event by sending a tape and he shunned the diplomatic plan that the National Union passed, which calls for encouraging Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to move to other countries.
Bennett’s own diplomatic plan is less hawkish. His ideas about encouraging Palestinian commerce, which he calls his “secret sauce,” are said to have been adopted by American envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, who are working on a plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Regarding other conflicts in the Middle East, Bennett wants Israel’s approach to be tougher, with more action, not just words. When the IDF invited security cabinet ministers to military maneuvers in the North, he was the only one who came, and he vowed to bring back ideas to the security cabinet.
“There is no substitute for going to the field,” Bennett said in an interview at his Jerusalem office. “That is what I did when I met with the officers during [2014’s] Operation Protective Edge and it is what I did when I was in the business world. There are strategic issues I learned from going there and seeing for myself what is going on.”
Ahead of a security cabinet meeting last month in which Netanyahu reported to the ministers about his meetings with US President Donald Trump and other world leaders on Iran and other issues, Bennett said Israel must ask the international community to stop Iran’s nuclearization but prepare to do the task on its own in case the world fails.
Naftali Bennett addresses government decisions on Western Wall, conversion
“On the one hand, we need to persuade the US to apply paralyzing sanctions of the highest level as soon as possible,” he says.
“Iran must be forced to choose between the nuclear path and a prosperous economy. Since the Iran deal, they haven’t been presented that option. At the same time, Israel must prepare for the possibility that the US and the world won’t be convinced by getting ready to defend ourselves by ourselves.”
He says that Israel must act on both tracks as if the other did not exist. On the sanctions track, he suggested removing Iran from the Swift banking system, which was done before at the peak of international sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Companies around the world would then have to choose between doing business with Iran or the United States.
At the same time, he adds, Israel must act under the assumption that the international community will not provide successful solutions to stop Iran’s nuclearization. He did not elaborate on what Israel should do to prepare itself militarily, preferring to leave such advice for closed forums like the security cabinet.
Regarding Netanyahu’s decision to not strike Iranian nuclear sites in 2011 when such a step was considered, Bennett remarked, “I have been in the government since 2013. Whatever has been missed has been missed and we have to look forward and defend ourselves by ourselves. We are all on a conveyor built that leads to a cliff.
“The world’s nuclear deal gave Iran the ability to develop everything necessary for a rapid breakaway to nuclearization. It allows Iran to develop faster centrifuges and improve its technology. There is a false sense of security now because the breakaway has been postponed by the deal, but they’re using the deal to race toward a bomb.”
Regarding Iranian moves into Syria, Bennett says that Israel will not tolerate Iran building a corridor from Tehran to Israel’s borders and the Mediterranean Sea, which would change the balance of power and endanger Israel.
“We won’t allow that to happen, and we will speak by actions, not by words. The only thing that works in the Middle East is actions.”
Bennett warns Lebanon, based on his experience as a commander in the Second Lebanon War and his years in commando units inside the territory of Israel’s northern neighbor.
“There is no way to differentiate between Hezbollah and Lebanon, and sending soldiers to achieve that impossible task is sending them to fail. We need a new strategy. If they shoot rockets at Israeli cities, we will use full force on the Lebanese government and infrastructure.
Shooting rockets from Lebanon to Israel is a declaration of war on Israel. This is a different strategy than what was used in the Second Lebanon War and it’s what I’m promoting now.”
Asked whether he favors a preemptive strike on Hezbollah, he says, “I’m not looking for adventures, but we will do everything possible to defend ourselves.” He has also pushed for tougher steps against Palestinian terrorism, even while calling for steps to be taken to aid the Palestinian population.
“The second Palestinian state is not going to happen beyond Gaza, and the Palestinians and the world are starting to understand that,” he said. “My approach is build peace bottom up, through well-paying jobs for everyone, Jews and Arabs. Economic development and free movement for everyone is the secret sauce. As a businessman, I saw nothing better to reduce tension.”
Bennett proposes gradually ending Israeli military rule in Area C, applying Israeli law and offering full Israeli citizenship to the 80,000 Palestinians living there. His plan is to incorporate into Israel 100% of the Jews in Judea and Samaria, while minimizing the number of Palestinians that would be drawn into the state’s borders.
Along with extending Israeli law to Area C, Bennett wants to significantly strengthen Palestinian autonomy in Areas A and B. He backs a land port in Jenin with connection to Haifa, a significant upgrade of roads, and a free tourist zone connecting Nazareth with Nablus, Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
BENNETT REJECTS the National Union’s new diplomatic plan that calls for annexing all of Judea and Samaria. He is not in favor of encouraging relocation of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, a key element in the plan that was initiated by Smotrich.
“I’m against annexing all of Judea and Samaria and two million Palestinians,” Bennett says. “I haven’t seen a smart and realistic way to do that. My approach is to apply sovereignty to Israeli parts of Judea and Samaria, to reduce conflict, and to agree to disagree on the rest.”
Bennett said he saw no problem with Bayit Yehudi coexisting with the National Union despite their very different diplomatic plans.
“Our party is an umbrella with different ideas on the Land of Israel,” he says. “How can Likud have [MK Yehudah] Glick, who backs annexing all Judea and Samaria and [Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi] Hanegbi who backs a Palestinian state? A variety of ideas is not a problem but a blessing.”
Bennett says he sees Bayit Yehudi as “a big umbrella with the National Union and non-religious people who share our values.” He notes that in the IDF and in hi-tech he served with secular Israelis and did not see why in politics he had to be sectarian.
That umbrella could also include Ayal Asad from the northern Druse village of Kisra-Samia, who served for many years in the IDF.
“He believes in the values of Bayit Yehudi, that Israel should be a Jewish state that respects minorities.
Why for heaven’s sake would I not want him? That’s exactly what I want. I remember criticism for bringing in [current Justice Minister] Ayelet Shaked four years ago, and she has indeed been a huge blessing for Bayit Yehudi.”
Bennett says that if his party confines itself to religious people who keep all the commandments, it could go back to polls indicating it might not cross the threshold, as in 2012 before he took over the party.
Asked if that means having an MK from the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered community,he said “I see no value in harming, humiliating, or calling names to LGBT people. Halacha won’t change. But there will be variety in the party.”
The Bayit Yehudi leader has defended his spokeswoman, who is on maternity leave and has a gay partner, from criticism inside the party. It surprised many when he hired a lesbian to represent the head of a party strongly affiliated with Orthodox Judaism.
Bennett also surprised the world when he took a leading role in encouraging religious pluralism at the Western Wall. He created an area for egalitarian prayer when he was minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs.
Netanyahu first led then canceled a plan to expand the site and create an entrance that would connect it to the regular entrance to the Western Wall. Bennett said he was worried that a solution has not been implemented.
“It’s not personal, but the one thing that keeps me up at night is the future of the Jewish people in the Diaspora,” he said. “We’re losing them in the millions.
More young people don’t feel close to Israel. As minister of Diaspora affairs, or as I call myself, minister of the Jews, we have to act.”
To that end, Bennett says he will back any compromise on the Western Wall, and his Diaspora Affairs Ministry has expanded outreach to American college campuses. That outreach to US campuses unites his roles as Diaspora affairs and education minister.
NOT EVEN a month into the 5778 school year, Bennett is focused on providing Israel’s children an education rooted in excellence, inclusion and strengthening the core curriculum.
The self-proclaimed “education minister for all of Israel’s children” speaks about raising education standards, Jewish learning, teaching English and the controversial “Code of Ethics” ahead of the start of the academic year.
Addressing issues of religion or lack thereof in the classroom, bringing in more core curriculum subjects to haredi schools and more religious studies in secular schools, the minister sees them as two separate issues and deals with them as such.
“Regarding Judaism and teaching the Bible, I am I not deterred by this hadata campaign [the term coined by secular interests alleging religious coercion in the public school systems]; in fact it only teaches me how much this is needed.”
Noting that it is not religious coercion but a means of connecting pupils to their history and heritage, he maintains, “I don’t think that our heritage and Yiddishkeit is owned by the ultra-Orthodox; I think it belongs to everyone. Why should kids in 2017 be denied this huge thing called ‘our heritage?’”
Bennett emphasizes the value of more educational trips and tours to biblically significant places in Israel, such as “going to the City of David and seeing where Solomon and David lived – learning in the field. We have the biggest asset; we are the land of the Bible.”
Concerning haredim and their resistance to merging into mainstream society, he points to his success in bringing more of the core curriculum into their yeshivot as well as increased enrollment in universities by haredim.
“I am pushing education. There are more schools today that are teaching the core curriculum than ever before and there are more haredim enrolled in universities. The fact is that they [the haredim] want to work.”
The approach doesn’t need to be forced or confrontational.
“It might surprise some readers, but most ultra-Orthodox schools are open to learning mathematics and English and other subjects. There’s no point in using a sledgehammer when most will happily accept improved courses. That is how we work. We offer materials, teachers and assistance to any school that wants to take it. Fighting with haredim might be good for some politicians, but it’s bad for the education of haredi children.
“For example, haredi girls study math and English. They always have. But they studied it a low level – only three units – with many under-qualified teachers. When we offered them an opportunity to improve in these fields, they readily agreed. The same is true with many schools for boys. Had we turned this into a battle, we would have seen regression, not progress.”
Entering the academic year, questions surround the controversial Code of Ethics proposed last year by Bennett and Tel Aviv University professor Asa Kasher, which prohibits university professors from promoting their political beliefs and forbids academic institutions from cooperating with politically affiliated NGOs. The minister addresses these concerns.
“I’m all for academic freedom. The soul of the university is freedom of speech, but freedom of speech does not mean that a professor who promotes BDS against his university should get a salary from the taxpayer. That’s why I initiated the ethical code with Asa Kasher and I am adamant about pushing it through.”
BENNETT TOUTS the success of his “Give Five” initiative, now in its third year, focusing on reversing what he claims is a decade of decline in math and science. The initiative is making progress on the goal of narrowing gaps in Israeli society – particularly in the periphery, which is registering the highest level of success from the reform.
“Since launching the “Give Five” math initiative, more than 160 additional schools, almost all in the periphery, offered five-unit math matriculation exams for the first time. We regressed from 13,000 graduates in science and math in 2006 to only 8,900 in 2012, but by the end of this year, we are going to exceed 18,000 graduates with five units of math.”
“Every boy and girl from Rahat, Shlomi and Kiryat Malachi who was given the chance to study five-unit math now has a chance to enter the IDF’s elite 8200 intelligence unit, study engineering at university and get a job in hi-tech.”
This school year, Bennett is going after the English curriculum with the new “Give Me Five” initiative.
“The biggest problem we have is that we have is a huge deficit in good English teachers.” Bennett told The Jerusalem Post.
“In fact, half of the English teachers who are teaching English now only completed four matriculation units. That’s unbelievable.”
Investing some NIS 70 million, the aim of this reform is to not only to increase the number of students studying English at the five-matriculation-unit level, but also to improve speaking and comprehension skills, and to overcome the significant deficiency of qualified teachers who are able to teach spoken English.
Bennett expands on the challenges.
“Here the problem is different, it’s not about five units or four units, it’s about what they learn. I’ve noticed that kids learn ‘present progressive,’ but they don’t know how to speak English. So the main goal is to move from theory to speaking.”
While Israeli schools struggle to acquire enough qualified English teachers, he notes that “advanced technology can help compensate for the lack of teachers in the meantime.”
This will take the form of Skype conversations with English speakers not in the classroom, and using computer programs aimed at strengthening speaking skills. A key need is to get as many good qualified teachers out in the field as soon as possible.
Bennett and his team are working on it.