(photo credit: REUTERS)
At the Saban Forum in Washington Last Saturday evening, Naftali Bennett became overnight the talk of the town. Bennett appeared at the prestigious Saban Forum 2014 of the Brookings Institution Saban Center for Middle East Policy devoted to Israel/US relations; or what’s left of them. Bennett did not merely “appear.” He waged a one-on-one confrontation with the man who is his complete antithesis, the former US ambassador to Israel and vice president and director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington, Martin Indyk. It was a formative, possibly unique, event. Hundreds of participants in the hall were virtually thunderstruck. They asked themselves if this is the new face of Israel. If it is, said one of them, then Houston, we have a problem.
Bennett exploded on the stage. He didn’t come to apologize, he didn’t come to do diplomacy, his intentions were not good. He entered with all the force (and he has force), with all the mutual paradigms, which the complex US/Israel relationship leans upon. There were moments when his tone rose; he didn’t let Indyk get in a single question, and it appeared as if at any moment he would banish him from the stage. This is no exaggeration. Bennett has a very short fuse, his motor can go from zero to 100 with lightning speed. Yes, he thinks outside the box – but smashes it to smithereens on the way.
At times, Indyk was stunned. Bennett was confident, fluent, assertive and sharp. Yes, he wasn’t quite accurate with his facts. He didn’t allow them to spoil his thesis. According to him, “price tag” incidents did not kill Palestinians, whereas Palestinians take Jewish lives (really? What about Mohammed Abu Khdeir, for example?).
He reckoned that Palestinians and Israelis stand side by side in traffic jams in Judea and Samaria (and what about the segregated roads?).
Etc. etc. Over and over he explained to the Americans how wrong they were, how detached there are, how little they understand. According to him, even the generals and security personnel can’t teach him what to think and how to act. He, it appears, knows better than everybody else. Quite predictably, he gave the example of the underground tunnels in Operation Protective Edge. Incidentally, during Protective Edge Bennett really was able to teach the generals a thing or two, as well as politicians considerably older than himself.
Indyk, a veteran diplomat, polished, experienced and calm, soon identified the danger. He didn’t enter the boxing ring with Bennett; he knew that a fight like this could easily turn from an incident into an attack. He let Bennett vent his zeal, disturbing him occasionally with a question or an insight, but didn’t stop Bennett’s performance, because it was important that he be heard. Bennett is very close to leading the polls in Israel. He is the new Israeli Right. “Little Bibi,” someone said afterwards – and was wrong. Bennett is not a little Netanyahu; Bennett is a dangerous Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, with all his weaknesses (and there are too many to count), is a weak and hesitant man. He is incapable of making a decision. He loves to appease his audience, which is why he so often sells them whoppers.
He promises everything to everyone, but when it comes to fulfillment, he doesn’t deliver the goods.
Bennett? He’s the exact opposite.
He is courageous, he makes quick decisions, he’s determined, he gets help from above, he is certain he’s right, that he knows it all and that everything will be alright. With Bennett, the Americans will very soon be yearning for Netanyahu. The American Jews in the audience watching Bennett with baited breath last Saturday evening were horrified. Is this really the new face of Israel? They have never felt so far from their second homeland. On the other hand, Bennett speaks their language. His English is cool, the language of hi-tech, of business, of someone who’s made a fortune exiting a start-up company.
Something about him charmed them, and something even bigger and more sinister scared them.
After the event was over, Bennett apologized to former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who commented on his outspoken remarks on the generals and officers. “I accept your comment,” said Bennett to Ashkenazi. Bennett has it in him to recognize a mistake and to express regret. That’s important. The trouble is that in the life of a nation there are circumstances and decisions from which it is very hard to withdraw, and for which regret is not an option.