The many colors of the right wing's great white hope
Naftali Benett, the millionaire entrepreneur who went on to become the great white hope of the Israeli religious right, wears many hats. A yarmulke is only one of them.
Naftali Benett is likable. Not because he's particularly sweet, even though he seems genuinely cordial and is in fact a pretty nice guy. No, definitely not because he's a nice guy.
Naftali Benett, the great white hope of the Israeli religious right and the fast-talking former head of the Yesha Council, the council of West Bank settlements, is likable because he knows exactly what you expect to hear from him. He is, after all, a right-wing, yarmulke-wearing former chief staff for Benjamin Netanyahu.
He knows exactly what you expect to hear from him and he's hell-bent on giving you the exact opposite. You see that yarmulke and want to talk about settlements and occupation? Well, you're going to be treated to a talk about the concentration of wealth instead.
"Let me be clear: I support the settlements wholeheartedly," Benett says, his voice assured and steady. He wears the slight grin of someone who's not in here for the money. "But this isn’t the only issue we have on the Israeli agenda. We made ourselves the hostages of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I don't think is resolvable, and forgot we could fix the state of Israel itself."
Benett, 40, is the founder of the right-wing movement "My Israel" along with secular femme fatale Ayelet Shaked. He is not your stereotypical settler. In fact, he's no settler at all.
He lives in Ra'anana, an upscale city close to Tel Aviv, with his wife and four children. He is a man of many faces, a former high-tech entrepreneur who sold the company he founded with friends for $145 million. He talks about co-existence with the Palestinians and he also bears deep pride for his military service, where he served as an officer in the prestigious Sayeret Matkal unit.
But while he served both in the army and the reserves, he is deeply opposed to enforced military service for Israel's ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations. He speaks of distributive justice, but is currently running in the primaries for a party that supports preferential treatment for settlements in the West Bank.
Benett's economic agenda, he says, "combines free markets and social sensitivity." He is also an excellent marketing man: In another world, in another life, he could have been Israel's answer to Don Draper. The man knows how to sell, no doubt. He knows exactly what's bothering the Israeli middle-class, and how to appeal to it.
Why is he so good at reaching people? Because although he may be rich today, he wasn't always. He is much more much middle class than he is the right-wing messiah some settlers think him to be.
His message to the Israeli people is simple: "The things that bind us are much bigger than the things that separate us." Forget the settlements and the occupation and the conflict, he says, and focus on the much bigger, much more urgent problems. Start with social justice.
"The cost of living is a threat to the existence of Israel," says Benett. "This problem is caused by pressure groups – namely the tycoons, but also groups like the big worker unions in the ports – that suffocate the free market and need to be broken up. But it takes a lot of courage to fight these pressure groups, and nobody, and I do mean nobody – not [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, not [Labor Party Chairwoman] Shelly Yacimovich – has the courage to stand up to them."
Ten years ago, when he still had to work for a living, Naftali Benett was hardly interested in politics. He was too busy trying to make ends meet, living in small apartment in New York City with his partners at Cyota, a company founded in 1999 and specializing in anti-fraud software.
"We lived in a small student apartment, barely getting by," he says. "We started the company in 1999, four guys who knew they wanted to work together but had no idea for a product. We still raised $12 million from investors – this was the height of the dot-com bubble. Our first product was software for securing online credit-card deals, but that one failed completely. We had 70-80 employees, an American CEO we hired, and a failed product. Unfortunately, while this was happening the bubble burst. We ran out of money. For two years, we had to somehow scratch a living. We tried several things, all of them failed, and had to cut two-thirds of the company. We fired the American CEO, and I was named CEO instead. I lived in New York for four years, not knowing each month whether I could pay rent. Then we had an idea we thought would work, but we needed money. Luckily, we found investors who said they'd give us $2.5 million, if we can raise $1 million independently. So now we only had to raise one million dollars in a couple of days.
"Somehow, we managed to raise $800,000, but were still shy of 1 million. Luckily, one of the partners persuaded his grandmother to hand us the other 200K. From that point on we didn’t worry about the product, we didn’t worry about the company – we just wanted to pay his grandmother back. Eventually, we succeeded. The product we made, an anti-fraud system against online bank frauds, is now used to verify 70 percent of online banking activities in the US, Western Europe and Canada. And the grandma? She yielded three times what she put in."
Naftali Benett, it is important to note, is extremely, extremely confident. Maybe that's because he's rich: In 2005, he and his partners sold Cyota to RSA for $145 million. Not long after that, instead of taking his wife to a luxurious, opulent trip around the world, he went to war – the Second Lebanon War, which broke out in the summer of 2006. His experiences there led him to politics, first as Netanyahu's chief of staff ("I believed it is critical for Israel that he be elected – As far as I'm concerned, I just continued my reserve service at his office"), then as head of the Yesha council (even though he does not live in Yesha), and now as a primary candidate in the "Bait Yehudi" party.
He is also ambitious. He wants to be minister of education. He wants to progress. But unlike other politicians in his sector, he is not looking in, hoping to raise religious –Zionist votes by talking about the occupied territories and Palestinians.
No, Benett is looking out, peering over at the rest of Israeli society. It is those people, the others, who he wants to pull. And he does so by talking about the cost of living, fighting monopolies and concentration of wealth. He even appeals to the Israeli-Arab population, not something you'd expect from someone from his ideological background.
"The state has neglected the Arab population of Israel for generations," he says. "They are equal citizens in the State of Israel, and the state commits two huge crimes against them: one, it does nothing to help them achieve full economic integration; and two, it does not enforce the law in the Arab cities and villages, which are terrorized by the local mafias that charge business owners protection money. The state says 'it is their problem, we're not going in there', but the Arabs I talk to, they just want the government to act. The reason the prime minister did not take care of this and does not take care of this is because there is much more to gain politically from attacking Arabs then actually helping them integrate into Israeli society."
Benett says that his attempts to appeal to Arabs and is own stance on the occupation can sit easily together.
"You see it in the West Bank as well," he says. "I don't want to paint an idyllic picture because the reality is far from ideal – if they could push a button to make us disappear they'd do it in a heartbeat and vice versa. But both Arabs and Jews have started to realize that neither side is leaving anytime soon, so we might as well work out our own differences and learn to co-exist."
Even in Israel's most tumultuous spots, he says, Arabs and Jews can get on the same page for a common cause. "It happens in the harshest places, in the heart of Hebron for instance: Palestinians and settlers working out their issues between themselves, with no governments mediating. And that's what matters. People talking between themselves. Not living happily ever after, not singing kumbaya, but learning to co-exist."
Benett believes that if Israeli citizens – from all stripes – can get past their politics, things will start to look up for this tiny country. "In 10 years we can make Israel a better place to live in," he says. "I say: forget Annapolis, Forget Oslo, forget Beilin and all the dreamers. Let's solve the problems of the real people."