The man with the knitted kippa – and many hats

Naftali Bennett is determined to lower the cost of living, encourage haredi employment and fight assimilation around the world.

Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
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.
But 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 hats.
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 him.
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 list?
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 society.
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 government?
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 that?
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 budget?
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 well.
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?
Encouraging 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?
Israel is 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?
We will 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 that?
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 for them.
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.