Yamina Party leader Naftali Bennett’s brief sojourn as defense minister – just six months – was nothing short of a tsunami when it came to entrenching Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria in advance of pending plans to annex 30% of the West Bank.
One could argue that he was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. Bennett’s predecessor, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, could not play that role, even though he lives in the Nokdim settlement. Time was not on his side.
Liberman served in the pre-election period (May 2016-November 2018), when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was nervous about taking bold actions in Judea and Samaria. Netanyahu then held the Defense Ministry portfolio, prior to Bennett.
True, Liberman advanced a high number of settler housing tenders, approved a new Jewish apartment building in Hebron and allowed for Jewish families to move into the Beit Rachel and Beit Leah homes. An entirely new settlement was built, the first such community in more than 20 years.
But the symbolic Amona outpost was demolished. Equally significant, the Palestinian village of Susya near Hebron and the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar east of Jerusalem remained standing in spite of Liberman’s pledges to remove them.
During the period of the Obama administration, the Defense Ministry was among the more politically challenging posts. Right-wing politicians and activists often blamed the Defense Minister for Netanyahu’s failures to advance their agenda in Judea and Samaria.
Unlike Liberman, Bennett lives outside Judea and Samaria in Ra’anana. But his background as a former Yesha Council director-general gave him an edge when it came to settlement activity. This was augmented by timing and his willingness to throw diplomatic caution to the wind.
Bennett was handed the Defense Ministry at the tail end of the most protracted election period in Israeli history, when Netanyahu had every reason to cater to the Right and almost no need for diplomatic restraints.
Bennett entered his post at a historic moment in November 2019, when the Trump administration publicly changed its policy toward the settlement enterprise, stating that Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria were not “inconsistent with international law.”
Netanyahu had already pledged to annex West Bank settlements prior to Bennett’s arrival in the ministry. It was a move that was strengthened by the unveiling of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan in January, which allowed for the application of Israeli sovereignty over 30% of the West Bank, on land in Area C, later this year.
Bennett, therefore, had a wider latitude for action than his predecessors. He could do little with Gaza, but in the biblical heartland so dear to his voter base, he could make his mark.
He was also helped by Netanyahu, who announced the advancement of plans for 3,500 apartment units in the contentious E1 section of Ma’aleh Adumim. It was a plan that had been frozen for years.
But Bennett did not rest on those laurels. One could argue that every project or action he took would have needed the approval of Netanyahu. But it is also true that when it came to the West Bank, he was in an unusual position of power with regard to the prime minister.
Since both men were vying for votes from the same right-wing audience, it was harder for Netanyahu to restrain Bennett, as he had other defense ministers, without taking a hit at the ballot box.
Either way, Bennett was able to generate his own headlines out of the following dream list of projects.
There was the advancement of a project for residential Jewish apartments above Hebron’s former wholesale market and the approval for planning work to begin on the elevator project to make Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs wheelchair accessible. This involved seizing municipal planning power in Hebron from the Palestinian Authority.
Bennett built on Netanyahu’s E1 plans by advancing work on a bypass route for Palestinians, dubbed the “sovereignty road.”
In an expansion of Israel’s land holdings, seven nature reserves were created in Judea and Samaria.
Bennett announced a campaign against illegal Palestinian construction in Area C and appointed former Defense Ministry adviser Kobi Eleraz to head a task force on the matter. He also created a team to prepare the Defense Ministry for the application of sovereignty.
To top it all off, he gave the initial green light to one of the largest West Bank construction projects, dubbed E2, that allocated 7,000 new homes in Efrat. The move would transform the community of some 10,000 people into a city.
It is also viewed by Palestinians as a project that hampers the development of the neighboring Palestinian city of Bethlehem, which had its eyes on that land.
The sudden COVID-19 pandemic that engulfed the globe robbed Bennett of some but not all of the limelight. With each headline, Bennett took subtle digs at Netanyahu, who he believes should have already applied sovereignty to all of Area C, which at present is under Israeli military and civilian control.
Bennett often uttered the phrase that the test of support for sovereignty is deeds, not words. It was a slogan aimed to create the impression that all Netanyahu had to offer was promises. But if one wanted to actually get something done, then he, Bennett, was the man for the job.
There is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in the decision by Bennett and his Yamina Party not to join Netanyahu’s coalition precisely at the moment when it appears Israel will approve annexation. Bennett, after all, was one of the first high-level, right-wing politicians to talk about annexation, doing so when the subject was a diplomatic and political taboo.
But even if a solution is found for the party to stay in the government, it is presumed at this juncture that Bennett will not continue on as defense minister.
Bennett was defense minister just long enough to link himself to high-level projects, but not long enough to garner criticism should they fail to advance.
The savvy accumulation of such an action list means Bennett leaves the Defense Ministry with an enormous amount of capital to use for any future political campaign.
This was the fifth ministerial post he has held since 2013. But it was the first post that has given him the opportunity to flex his muscle when it comes to actions that so thoroughly advance the settlement enterprise.
Should Netanyahu make good on his pledge to annex West Bank territory, Bennett’s record will pale in significance. But should Netanyahu waver or delay on annexation, then these project advancements will become political gold for Bennett, who is one of Netanyahu’s strongest right-wing opponents outside of the Likud.
He would be able to use these projects to hammer Netanyahu, either from the government or from the opposition, to underscore a message that when it comes to executing a right-wing agenda, Bennett is the most certain bet.