In New York, Bennett Hammers Home Jerusalem’s Message on a Nuclear Iran

'Iran is on the ropes' due to economic sanctions, Israel's economy minister says. 'This is exactly the time to ratchet up.'

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NEW YORK – In an interview held before an adoring audience at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y on Sunday, it was clear Naftali Bennett was holding as tight to his talking points as he wishes the Obama administration would squeeze Iran on its nuclear program.

“There is no party that wants a deal more than Israel, but it has to be a good deal to prevent war,” said the senior cabinet member. “Iran is the world’s biggest exporter of terror, from Kazakhstan to Thailand to Israel. Iran is not Switzerland. We have to be tough. This is not the time to let up.”

As about a dozen university students stood outside the Y protesting Bennett’s obstruction of Israeli-Palestinian peace, he was interviewed by Dan Senor, a former Mitt Romney foreign policy adviser who in 2009 authored the book “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.” Senor started out with Bennett’s background as a successful high-tech entrepreneur, and the Israeli minister was eager to put forward his view of his country as “a lighthouse in the storm” of the Middle East.

But the focus quickly turned to Iran. Echoing what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on a CNN current affairs program earlier Sunday, Bennett said “a bad deal [with Iran] will lead to war. A good deal will dismantle the entire machine.”

Iran currently possesses 18,500 centrifuges to make the enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons, he said, and as long as the Islamic Republic possesses the hardware it can process uranium with relative ease. The Obama administration and the other five P5+1 governments in talks with Iran should not be fooled by Tehran’s maneuvers, Bennett warned.

“Iran does not want nuclear bombs today, while the whole world is watching,” he said. “Their plan is to wiggle out of sanctions but keep the machines, wait until the U.S. is involved in some crisis, and within six weeks it is a fait accompli.”

That is all the time it would take for Iran to convert the enriched uranium into nuclear weapons, Bennett said. Six weeks is not enough time for the West to intercede should Iran move ahead with its nuclear plans. But if the centrifuges were removed as part of a negotiated settlement, it would take Iran at least three years to get back up to speed. “Three years is enough time,” he added. “That’s the core disagreement” between the United States and Israel.

But he quickly noted, “The Obama administration is a huge friend of Israel. But it has to be either/or for Iran. Dismantle [the centrifuges] or have economic sanctions. Will the West have more leverage or less six months from now when sanctions are eased?”

According to Bennett, “Iran is on the ropes. They’ve come to the table only because of these sanctions.” Life in Iran is “unbearable” because of them, he said. “This is exactly the time to ratchet up the sanctions, precisely the time to increase them to make it an either/or proposition.”

Not since the Yom Kippur War

Bennett was in the United States to work multiple angles in Israel’s effort to get Washington not to weaken the sanctions, including lobbying members of Congress. He was slated to speak at the Brookings Institution on Monday. He wears three hats as a Knesset member — the better to cover up his balding head, he joked at the Y. He serves as economy minister, religious services minister and Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs minister.

“These are fateful days” in Israel, the likes of which have not been seen since the Yom Kippur War, he said. If in the future a nuclear missile hits Rome, Madrid or Tel Aviv, it will be traceable back to what happens on Iran in the coming weeks, said Bennett.

To enthusiastic applause he added, “How many times do we need to be duped? I’m not willing to risk my child for some experiment that some American or European thinks is right.”

Bennett took a coin out of his pocket that he said was from the year 66 and discovered in an area outside the Green Line, “what is called the Occupied Territories. It says ‘Herut Tzion,’ ‘Freedom of Zion,’” he said. The audience applauded what Bennett said next: “Can I be an occupier in my own home?”

Bennett laid out his vision for what the future of Israel and Palestine should look like. The West Bank would be divided and in Palestinian-controlled areas, “they govern themselves. But we do need to retain security control,” Bennett said. Palestinian areas are “demilitarized and they can’t have an army. When we know of a terrorist we go in and pick him out.”

There would still be 70,000 Palestinians in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank, Bennett said. “We give them full Israeli citizenship.”

When asked how he reconciles his perspective with that of Netanyahu, who supports the idea of a two state solution, Bennett said, “I vehemently oppose founding a Palestinian state.”

“Do we have to give up all of Judea and Samaria and then still be left with 1.5 million people [in Gaza] who still want to kill us? I don’t think that would be a good business decision.”

Bennett spoke briefly about religious pluralism and Jerusalem’s Western Wall in response to a question from the audience. “In Israel the Kotel is not being discussed,” he said. When he became an MK, “I was not aware of the huge importance ascribed to the Kotel here and abroad. The Kotel became an area of fighting and bickering. Three months ago I said ‘go build the other plaza at some distance from the main Kotel prayer area.’ In five days we built it. It’s open for anyone. The Haredim are criticizing it. Women of the Wall are not happy. No one is happy, which means it’s a good solution.”

At the end of his talk he returned to his opening theme: The narrative focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be jettisoned in favor of a narrative focusing on Israel as “a lighthouse nation.”

Bennett talked about increasing the participation of Haredim ultra-Orthdox Jews — and Israeli Arab women in Israel’s workforce. He cycled between warning of the dangerous neighborhood in which Israel lives and the new message for which he wants Israel to be known. “We’ve got a storm going on in the Middle East. The Arab Spring is evolving into an Arab Winter that might last 50 more years. My vision of Israel is being a lighthouse in the storm.”

About a dozen young protesters stood outside the Y holding posters that said “Bennett not a partner 4 peace” and “Do you support a two-state solution? Bennett doesn’t.”

They were part of a new group called All That’s Left, an offshoot of a recently formed Israeli group, said Tom Corcoran, a student at New York University and a protest organizer. Bennett relayed “a very romanticized view of what’s going on,” Corcoran said after Bennett’s talk.

“He can talk about working with Palestinians, but it’s not actually something he supports,” Corcoran said. “His plan is ultimately to annex part of the West Bank because he thinks it’s a solution to the situation. A lot of the economic success [Bennett talks about] is tied up with the settlements and annexation. We don’t think those are separate things.” This was the first All That’s Left protest in New York, Corcoran said, though the group was planning others.

Bennett, meanwhile, urged the audience filling roughly two-thirds of the Y’s main hall to change the way they talk about Israel, to focus on Israel’s significant work introducing innovations in technology to the developing world. He spoke about an Israeli company working with farms in India to train 20,000 workers annually. Israeli agricultural technologies have enabled those Indian farmers to quintuple their cucumber crop, he said. That kind of success is shifting the way people talk about Israel.

“When I became the minister of the economy I thought visiting governments were going to talk about the West Bank and the conflict. But they come asking how they can inject Israeli innovation” into their economies. Israel has become a leader in water treatment, he said. “If we have 500 water centers in Africa, Africa won’t be talking to us about the conflict. I envision Israel as a mecca of lighthouse technologies.”

“We have to change the narrative. People don’t want to listen, they are stuck in the conflict narrative. We have to invest only in the startup nation, the lighthouse narrative,” he said.

“Let Tzipi [Livni] go to Annapolis. We’ll build the economy,” he said to laughter and applause, referring to a previous round of peace talks with the Palestinians and a veteran Israeli negotiator.

“We can have de facto peace between the people even if we don’t have formal peace between the diplomats. When you talk to people remember: Israel is the lighthouse in the storm.”

Protesters greeted Bennett outside New York's 92nd Street Y. Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Naftali BennettCredit: Emil Salman

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