The prince who reigns over King Bibi

The Jerusalem Post sits down with Naftali Bennett.

Minister of Education Naftali Bennett interviewed by 'Jerusalem Post' reporter Herb Keinon at the 2017 Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, December 6, 2017.
While the United Kingdom reveled in joy over the birth of the third child of Prince William and Duchess Kate Middleton, in Israel, the focus was on a local prince of sorts.
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett was born to commoners Myrna and Jim Bennett, who made aliya from San Francisco. But he has proven to be the power behind the throne of King Bibi, as Time magazine famously crowned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May 2012.
On Tuesday at 8 a.m., Bennett released a statement threatening to leave Netanyahu’s government if the controversial Supreme Court override bill was not advanced in the earliest possible meeting of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation on May 6. He reinforced the threat an hour later in an interview with The Jerusalem Post at his Education Ministry office in the capital.
It took less than 12 hours for Netanyahu to surrender to Bennett in a message on his Twitter account. That was faster than on previous occasions, and there have been many incidents in this current term of Netanyahu in which the king had to cave in to the prince.
Netanyahu’s term began with him reluctantly surrendering the Justice portfolio to Bennett’s political ally, Ayelet Shaked, much to the dismay of the prime minister and his wife Sara, who has hated the pair since an incident when Bennett and Shaked worked for her husband 10 years ago.
Since then, there was Elor Azaria, the Hebron shooter whom Netanyahu initially criticized and then backed, following Bennett’s lead. There is construction in the West Bank that there would not have happened had Bennett not threatened Netanyahu.
There was legislation, like the settlement arrangements bill in February 2017 that retroactively legalizes nearly 4,000 settlement homes built on private Palestinian land, a law requiring transparency for non-governmental organizations in July 2016 and an amendment four months ago to the Basic Law: Jerusalem, requiring a vote of 80 out of the 120 MKs to give parts of the capital away.
Last month, Bennett flexed his muscles and prevented Netanyahu from initiating June elections. Bennett warned Netanyahu “not to topple a right-wing government for personal reasons,” and after Bennett built a coalition of parties opposing early elections, Netanyahu had no choice but to give in.
And then there were the bizarre events of April 2, when Netanyahu announced a plan for migrant workers and then abandoned it several hours later, after Bennett’s pronouncement that the agreement was “a surrender” and would make Israel a “paradise for migrants.”
The Post’s front page the following day called into question who runs the country, Netanyahu or Bennett, and noted that Netanyahu went at the speed of light from what Bennett called “surrendering,” to surrendering to Bennett.
It can even be surmised that what was reported in foreign sources as an Israeli strike on an Iranian air base in Syria on April 8 came following pressure on Netanyahu in the security cabinet to attack Iran.
In the following interview, Bennett answers questions about those incidents; security; Diaspora affairs; and his plan for replacing Netanyahu and formally ascending the throne:
After pressuring Netanyahu successfully so many times, have you become prime minister without holding the title?
Obviously, I deeply respect the prime minister. However, I am very happy we are realizing our policies. I came into politics to bring about our values and beliefs. I am happy we can be the iron spine of the government on most major issues. Imagine what it would look like without a strong Bayit Yehudi.
What it would look like without your party in the coalition?
We saw what it would look like in Netanyahu’s government of 2009 to 2013. The government released over 1,000 terrorists who murdered Jews; froze construction over the Green Line in Jerusalem; gave in to radical judicial activism; and was very hesitant in showing force against our enemies. Together with Olmert’s government, it allowed a tiny Hezbollah to build itself up massively as a terrorist organization with more than 130,000 rockets. We are not going to make the same mistake with Iran and Syria that we made with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Do you think Netanyahu will try to initiate elections in September, to preempt a decision by the attorney- general on his criminal investigations?
You need to ask Netanyahu. I don’t know. I hope not. Toppling a good national government for no good reason is unacceptable. We are here to govern. It takes ministers about a year to really understand their ministry deeply and be able to be effective. Rapid election cycles are not a sign of a strong democracy. If we want to govern, we should just govern.
Is Netanyahu corrupt?
I believe not. I have known him for 12 years. There is a lot that I learned from him and am learning from him. I hope and believe he will put the best interest of Israel ahead of any personal interests.
You announced in December that you see yourself as prime minister after Netanyahu. Wouldn’t you need to be in a ruling party like Likud for that?
It’s true that the current structure of Bayit Yehudi needs to change and needs to become all Israeli and not a secular party. That’s a challenge for me to do. I don’t desire to lead a secular party. When I was CEO of a hi-tech company, most of my employees weren’t religious, when I was a unit commander, most of my soldiers weren’t religious and when I wake up in the morning, I think of all Israeli students, not just religious. The challenge is mine to deliver.
How much does the criticism of your government’s policies by a Hollywood actress like Natalie Portman really matter?
Diaspora Jews matter. A single actress does not matter much, but eight million Jews in the Diaspora should be of the utmost importance to the State of Israel. As prime minister, I would prioritize the importance of the Jewish Diaspora as one of Israel’s three primary missions, along with security and ending socio-economic gaps and polarization.
Do you see Portman as the typical American left-wing progressive Jew, whose criticism merits a response?
I don’t want to typify what an American Jew is. There are so many different streams. My main concern is that the younger generation is losing interest in its own Jewishness and its connection to Israel. For 100 years, Jews in America saw Israel as their project and now it’s our turn for Israel to see Diaspora Jews as our project and join forces and develop Diaspora Jews together. I actually think Israel should invest considerable taxpayer money to connect and strengthen American Jews even if they don’t make aliya.
What did you think of Portman’s comment that Israel was created as haven for Holocaust survivors?
That’s a profound falsehood. Israel was created despite the Holocaust, not because of the Holocaust. National aspirations for the Land of Israel were strong for 2,000 years, and modern Zionism began in the 1880s, way before the Holocaust. But she got it wrong even deeper. Israel’s purpose is not only a safe haven. It’s first and foremost the home of the Jews. According to her logic, if there is a beautiful, safe place in Australia, we should all move to Australia. But there was a reason that when Herzl considered Uganda for a Jewish state, the entire Jewish people pushed back against Herzl. Because it’s not about being a safe haven. It’s about coming home. Think about a tree that can only thrive in a certain soil. That’s Israel, which can only fulfill its national Jewish destiny in the land of Israel. But I actually like Natalie Portman and her movies.
Will you try to see her when you are in the US for Sunday’s Jerusalem Post Conference?
I will never say no to any Jew who wants to meet me.
How do you fix the growing rift between Israel and young, left-wing, progressive American Jews that has deepened over the Kotel and conversion issues and the divide over the Trump presidency?
Indeed, it’s complicated. The way to do it is to understand that we are one family, and these are debates within a family and now let’s talk. There is a disconnect between the Israeli public and American Jews. The most effective means of bridging the gap is physically coming to Israel and talking. We know that those who go on Birthright for 10 days fundamentally become more connected and feel that they are part of the family. The Israeli government has to be more sensitive and aware of Diaspora Jews. That’s part of my job. My job is externally connecting Diaspora Jews to Israel and domestically connecting Israel to the Diaspora.
What is the significance of the May 14 ceremony moving the US embassy to here in Jerusalem? Why does it matter so much that it will be here and no longer be an hour away?
It’s a strategic and historic move. We have deep gratitude to the US president. It proves that Israel is gaining legitimacy and acceptance without having to carve out and hand over parts of our country. It also internalizes in the minds of our enemies the fact that Israel is here to stay, and ironically and paradoxically, it actually enhances chances for peace, because never was there going to be peace predicated on dividing Jerusalem. By taking it off the table, you increase the chances of ultimate peace in the long term. At the Institute for National Security Studies conference in January, you talked about the need to attack the Iranian octopus and stop targeting its tentacles like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Did that speech result in the attack on the Iranian T4 base, which was attacked by Israel, according to foreign sources like The New York Times?
The policy I’m promoting is one that should have been adopted a decade ago and it’s important that it is being adopted now. Iran is playing chess and threatening our population centers through Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, yet it sits supposedly immune 1,000 kilometers away in Iran. This is an asymmetric situation we have to fix. They need to understand that if Israel is threatened, so is Iran. I’m always happy when the government adopts what I advocate. I can’t comment on what the security cabinet does, but just like in Operation Protective Edge and other national security incidents and issues, I will continue to advocate for policies I believe in.
What are you pushing for next, security-wise?
The current policies of the security cabinet are correct. I fully back all of the policies of the past year. Regarding the security cabinet, two years ago, I asked to upgrade the functionality of the security cabinet, and I am proud to say, “Mission accomplished.” I am getting briefings. The security cabinet is today the supreme, effective tool for national security policy and strategy. The quality and depth of decision-making is good. [Hours after the interview, he told Army Radio that the next step was the May 12 deadline of US president Donald Trump on the Iran deal. “It is important that Trump fixes or nixes the deal, because if not, Iran will get an arsenal. I fully support President Trump and Netanyahu. Holding strong now can prevent them from getting a nuclear capability. The Iranian economy is suffering from tough times and that could lead to Iran caving in.”]
What are you advocating ahead of US president Donald Trump’s May 12 deadline to change the international community’s agreement with Iran?
It is important that Trump fixes or nixes the deal, because if not, Iran will get an arsenal. I fully support President Trump and Netanyahu’s approach on that. Holding strong now can prevent Iran from getting a nuclear capability. There are those who say that there are short-term benefits to the Iran deal right now. But history is full of examples of sacrificing the long term for the short term, and that has brought disaster. The Iranian economy is suffering from very tough times now, and their currency has weakened by 50% in the past year. Now more than ever, this is the time to deepen the sanctions and not give in. That could lead to stopping Iran’s nuclearization.
What about the Egyptian decision to allow the body of Hamas drone expert Fadi al-Batsh, who was assassinated in Malaysia, into Gaza for burial?
I asked the prime minister to prevent the body and his family from coming in. We have ways of asking the Egyptians. There are interests between countries, things that are important to us and their interests, and there must be reciprocity. If it is important for us to return the bodies of Hadar Goldin, Oron Shaul and Avera Mengistu, we have to prove it with actions.
If the security cabinet is functioning well, why are you threatening to lose it all for the Supreme Court overriding bill?
We have explained to our readers that the bill would limit the power of the Supreme Court. It was supposed to come to a vote this coming Sunday but was postponed by a week at the request of Supreme Court president Esther Hayut, who will be meeting with Netanyahu and Shaked this coming Sunday. Hayut is expected to insist that any bill permitting the Knesset to override the Court’s decisions to strike down laws require a special majority of 70 or 80 MKs.
But why are you pushing so much on an issue most Israelis don’t even understand?
This is perhaps the most important bill in 25 years. During the past 25 years, the Supreme Court has radically encroached on the government’s authority to govern. Time and again, it cancels bills that the Knesset legislates. When you want to expel a terrorist who murdered, they tell you that you can’t. When you want to use security means to fight terrorism, they tie your hands. When you want to pass tax bills, they cancel them. The Supreme Court is not a government on top of the government. The Supreme Court should defend human rights when they are extremely damaged and when there is tyranny, but they have turned themselves into a second- opinion authority. I’ll remind everyone that millions of Israelis elected a government. They did not elect three or four judges to conduct foreign policy. That’s our job, and if they don’t like us, they can replace us. This clause will restore a reasonable balance between the Supreme Court and the government. This change is long overdue. I’ll add that the prime minister signed the coalition deal, which is a written agreement with me, explicitly committing to pass this bill, and promises must be kept.
Do you have a last message to the readers?
Israelis must stay united. We can’t let internal divisions erode our national strength. It’s okay that we debate and argue. We are Jews, after all. But to continue to thrive, if we want a strong Israel, we need to be like [Israel Prize winner and bereaved mother] Miriam Peretz. We have to love each other and understand that we are all one family.