Into the Fray: Bennett at Saban: What he should – and shouldn’t – have said

Naftali Bennett gave a spirited performance at the recent Saban Forum, but was far more convincing on what should not be done, than on what should be done.

Naftali Bennett (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Naftali Bennett
You know, I just think you live in another reality. It’s what Steve Jobs called distorted reality thinking.
Martin Indyk to Naftali Bennett, at the 2014 Saban Forum.
How many missiles need to fall on Ashkelon until you’ll wake up? How many? How many people need to die in our country until you wake up from this illusion?
Naftali Bennett to Martin Indyk, at the 2014 Saban Forum.
Last weekend, the 11th annual Saban Forum convened in Washington, with its usual bevy of high-profile participants, to discuss the developments in the Middle East, Israel-US relations and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Hardly hospitable milieu
Funded by Democratic benefactor Haim Saban, and hosted by the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, the tenor of the Forum is usually left-wing on Mideast affairs, with a strong bent in favor of the two-state principle and the land-for-peace doctrine.
This year’s lineup included former US secretary of state for the Obama administration Hillary Clinton; the current US Secretary of State for the Obama administration, John Kerry; Labor Party head Isaac “Bugie” Herzog; Martin Indyk, Brookings vice president, until recently Kerry’s special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; and Jeffrey Goldberg, the Obama-philic columnist seen widely as a mouth piece for the White House.
Clearly the Forum was hardly the most hospitable milieu for someone like Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, generally considered one of most hawkish/right-wing members of the government. As Bennett quipped, if he conducted “a poll here, probably Zehava Gal-On [head of the far-left Meretz party] would be prime minister and maybe Tzipi Livni No. 2.”
The disparity between Bennett and the overall ambiance of the Forum was highlighted by the fact that his participation in the event comprised a lengthy “conversation” (“confrontation” might be more appropriate) with the Saban Center’s Indyk.
In early May, Indyk, whose views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and ways to solve it are wildly incompatible with those of Bennett, accused proponents of settlements within the government (who clearly include Bennett and his Bayit Yehudi party) of “sabotaging” the negotiations he (Indyk) was charged with conducting.
A spirited performance
It was in this clearly confrontational environment that Bennett was called upon to articulate his views on how Israel should chart its future.
To his credit, he gave a spirited performance, deftly parrying and resolutely rebutting most of Indyk’s adversarial jibes. He conducted himself with confidence, assertively countering and contradicting many of his interlocutor’s claims. Bennett did well in exposing the grave, counterproductive defects of the land-for-peace doctrine, the disastrous consequences it has had in the past, and will have in the future if pursued any further.
He remained unintimidated by threats of demographic disaster and economic sanctions. He pointed out that the demographic statistics are far less daunting than commonly touted, enumerated the great contributions Israeli ingenuity and innovation has made to humanity and why it is a sought after partner economically, despite the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians.
Bennett’s defiant demeanor in his rejection of conventional wisdom regarding the Israeli-Palestinian impasse was a welcome and refreshing change compared to the mealy-mouthed ambiguity and demeaning self-recrimination we have become accustomed to from many Israeli politicians. He made the telling point that by paying lip service to the unrealistic, and unattainable, two-state principle, Israel is undermining its own credibility – since it is unable to undertake measures, on the one hand, and unable to refrain from measures, on the other, to make its implementation feasible. In this regard he, correctly, observed: “... we’re in the pit we’re in precisely because we’re inconsistent.”
Ascending force in Israeli politics
Judging from the approving responses received from several right-wing pundits – and from the dismay of detractors – Bennett’s appearance is likely to enhance his electoral potential in the coming election.
Bennett and his Bayit Yehudi party are a distinctly ascendant force in Israeli politics. However, it is precisely because of his growing influence that Bennett’s political proclamations need to be carefully scrutinized and his political prescriptions critically examined for any inconsistencies of the kind he correctly identifies in the two-state/land-forpeace proposal.
After all if the Israeli Right is to produce a cogent and convincing alternative to the dominant two-state paradigm (or its default option of an un-Jewish one-state-of-all-itscitizens), it must be thoroughly thought through, and the consequences of its implementation realistically assessed.
This is essential if it is to avoid being entangled in the selfsame contradictions between lip service to ideas that are either unattainable in the short run, or unsustainable in the long run, and the measures required to implement them.
Defects and omissions
In this regard, I have in the past expressed my grave reservations as to some of the ideas Bennett raised in his Saban Forum “conversation,” which if adopted will almost certainly lead Israel into a perilous cul-de-sac, attenuating little, if any, of the dangers entailed in present proposals and, in fact, exacerbating many of them.
I cannot provide a detailed critique of the entire Bennett- Indyk exchange (almost 15,000 words). However, I should like to touch on some major defects and omissions in Bennett’s policy proposal – on some of the things that should not be said, and some which should be, but were not.
Bennett’s blueprint involves basically four elements which he set out in a November New York Times op-ed titled “For Israel, Two-State Is No Solution.” Indyk summarized them: “... upgrading Palestinian autonomy; upgrading the infrastructure in the West Bank; upgrading economic relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; and the kicker, annexing Area C while offering the Palestinians in Area C [Israeli] citizenship.”
Sadly, none of these elements – neither on their own nor in combination – can contribute toward long-term stability in Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, or diminish any of Israel’s current security problems and diplomatic predicaments.
Same political pain
As the response from Indyk and the Forum’s sponsor Haim Saban indicated, the political pain in terms of international sanctions and censure involved in the annexation of Area C alone will almost certainly be no less than that involved in annexing the entire area of Judea-Samaria – i.e. including Area A and B.
True, Bennett did admit that he could not implement his plan immediately: “I’m not tomorrow going to annex Area C. It might take 20 years, it might take 40 years.”
True, he did acknowledge that he was “not suggesting that... one day... we just do that. There’s a process of changing the global view... And it takes time. It’s an uphill battle.”
I, of course, strongly endorse the view that Israel needs to dramatically upgrade its public diplomacy efforts across the world, and to invest massively in changing international perceptions of the conflict. However, I am at a loss as to how it would successfully promote a Bennett- like prescription, no matter how great the connecting highways and available infrastructure. For, after 20 to 40 years, all it envisages for 90 percent of the Arab residents of Judea-Samaria is being confined to 40% of the area, scattered across a myriad of disconnected enclaves and corridors, in a state of unenfranchised, open-ended stateless political suspension.
But more on that a little later
Dubious demographics
Much of the rationale of Bennett’s proposal hinges on the prevailing demographic distribution and the relatively small (about 100,000) Arab population, resident in Area C, to whom he suggests offering Israeli citizenship – in order to obviate any allegations of “apartheid.”
However, unless Israel can demarcate and secure the borders of Area C, there will be no way of preventing massive migration from Areas A and B into Area C. As I have been at pains to underscore in the past, a cursory glance at a map of Area C will quickly bring home the implausibility of such a task – made even more insurmountable by the fact that Bennett is on record as recommending the abolition of roadblocks, and endorsing total freedom of movement for the Arab residents of Judea-Samaria.
This, of course, will dramatically disrupt the optimistic demographic balance in Area C, particularly if the process is seen as being drawn out over decades, even if (perhaps, especially if) the “intruders” are precluded from being given Israeli citizenship.
For as I have frequently pointed out, it is not only electoral arithmetic that will determine the realities of life in the country, but the sociocultural fabric of the population, which to a great degree will be determined by the presence of a large Arab population, enfranchised or otherwise.
Governance of Areas B & C
Extending Israeli sovereignty to Area C begs the question of who will govern the remaining Areas A & B.
It is highly implausible that any Palestinian individual or entity of adequate authority will agree to take responsibility for the governance of these areas following an Israeli annexation of Area C (comprising 60% of Judea-Samaria).
For this would inevitably be construed as traitorous acknowledgment of the Israeli annexation and its implicit acceptance.
But even in the unlikely event that some yet-to-be-identified Palestinian could be found, pliable enough to swallow Israeli annexation of most of Judea-Samaria, Bennett’s formula for enhanced autonomy of the Palestinian-Arabs in Areas A and B still appears highly problematic.
So when he declares: “I don’t want to govern them...
I don’t want to take care of their schools. They’re doing their own job there,” is he really endorsing the wild Judeophic incitement in the current curricula? Does he see this as part of the long-term arrangement with the Palestinians, or does he in fact want to interfere in the formulation of what is taught in their schools? The same can be said for the management of shared water resources, sewage treatment and other pollutants, control of contagious diseases, roadworthiness of vehicles on “shared highways”...
No, extended autonomy has always been a pipe dream and a prescription for further friction.
The gravest error
Perhaps the gravest error in Bennett’s approach is his suggestion that by enhancing the standard of living of the Palestinian Arabs, he will somehow diminish the tension and hostility toward Israel.
It is difficult to overstate how unfounded – and counterproductive – this contention is. Sadly, I do not have enough space to elaborate on why this is so, but perhaps the best way to illustrate why enhanced affluence will not induce enhanced tranquility is to quote Bennett himself in responding to Indyk. He – correctly – remarked: “What we’re seeing in the Muslim world is very affluent Muslims... who are going to ISIS and cutting off heads...”
Indeed, they are.
The entire concept that Israel has any practical interest or moral obligation to support or promote the Palestinian economy is totally without foundation – either ethical or pragmatic.
Indeed, Israel should be doing precisely the opposite.
On the one hand, it should create strong disincentives for Palestinian-Arabs to stay, by letting the unsustainable Palestinian economy implode under the weight of its pervasive corruption and bloated bureaucracy. On the other hand, it should provide strong incentives for them to leave, by offering individual Palestinians generous relocation grants to extricate themselves from the sorry fate their failed “leadership” has brought them.
Call the enemy the enemy
Bennett’s Saban Forum performance was far more convincing on what should not be done, than on what should be done; on what must be avoided, than on what must be undertaken.
Perhaps his major failing can be traced to his reluctance, common to nearly all Israeli political leaders, to designate the Palestinian-Arab collective as what it really is – and what they designate themselves: the enemy – implacable and obdurate.
This reticence is perhaps rooted in a desire to mollify Western audiences. It is, however, entirely misplaced and results repeatedly in unrealistic Israeli policy proposals, which assume that somehow, the Palestinians-Arabs will become either future peace partners, or loyal (at least, docile) residents/citizens under benign Jewish rule.
If Bennett is to become an effective leader who can steer the nation to a secure future, this is a reticence he must shed.
Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies