Deconstructing Naftali Bennet: The Settlers' Hope

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Naftali Bennett took up the position of director general of the Yesha Council of settlements in January 2010, after the resignation of Pinchas Wallerstein. He was the sole candidate. Bennett and council chairman Dani Dayan, who had also sold a high-tech firm, had a superficial acquaintance. At their first meeting, Bennett set forth a plan aimed at bringing the settlers into a new, far more sophisticated era. Fewer buses and demonstrations, more mind gimmicks.

Bennett was introduced to the directors of the Yesha Council at a meeting in a Jerusalem hotel. For most, it was their first encounter with him. The only one who objected to his appointment was attorney Yossi Fuchs, on the grounds that Bennett was "the most left-wing marker in the council."

Bennett believed the organization was a problematic brand - one with difficulty breaking out of the boundaries of the settler sector. Together with Ayelet Shaked, a former colleague from the Prime Minister's Office, and now No. 5 on the Habayit Hayehudi list, he suggested creating a Facebook page for the Yisrael Sheli (My Israel ) movement, which would promote the values of Zionism along with the values of the settlements.

Initially, the Yesha Council concealed its connection to Yisrael Sheli, but it quickly became an open secret. The council funded the salary of the Yisrael Sheli media advisor, Moshe Klughaft, who is currently Bennett's campaign manager.

The group embarked on a variety of Internet campaigns, calling upon supporters to boycott Israeli firms doing business with Rawabi, a new Palestinian city under construction, to pressure Bank Leumi not to make funds available to a Palestinian real-estate agent doing work in East Jerusalem and more.

One move of Bennett's that aroused the ire of the Yesha Council was the dissemination by Yisrael Sheli of pictures of the bodies of the four members of the Fogel family, who were murdered in their home in the settlement of Itamar in March 2011, with minimal blurring of their faces. The dissemination of the photos, without the agreement of the mother's family, the Ben Yishais, caused a storm. A source close to what happened, who has asked to remain anonymous, told Haaretz: "That was when I understood that this is a person with impaired judgment."

More significant incidents of friction have been linked to issues of authority and independence. While Bennett has won a great admiration from his subordinates, who are impressed by his personal qualities, friendliness, skills and smile - among his superiors, the story is different.

During the time of the construction freeze in the West Bank, from 2009-2010, after lengthy meetings, the strategy of the Yesha Council was to attack the issue of the freeze itself - so as to prevent its prolongation - but not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had agreed to the American request for the moratorium.

Nevertheless, time after time, Bennett spoke off the record to journalist Sima Kadmon of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, criticizing the premier. In an interview Bennett granted Shalom Yerushalmi in the daily Maariv, he attacked Netanyahu head on. One source says this was a calculated move by Bennett: "He prepared an excuse for himself for why he was quarreling with Netanyahu. Everyone knows Bibi threw him out of the [Prime Minister's] Bureau because of his problematic personal conduct. So Bennett started to attack him personally, so he could claim the bad relations had begun during the [construction] freeze."

On the evening of August 31, 2010, four Israelis from the settlement of Beit Hagai were murdered in a shooting attack by Hamas on Route 60, near the village of Bani Naim. Dayan was abroad. Bennett arrived at the scene, and after telephone consultations called an improvised press conference.

"From tomorrow," he declared, "there is no more freeze. We are going back to building as usual." (This was a month before the moratorium was to end. )

The next day reporters were invited to a Yesha Council building event at the settlement of Giv'at Binyamin. Bennett, in jeans and a T-shirt, mixed cement and beamed happily. A few days later, it emerged that the construction site that had been excluded from the freeze directive, because of urgent public needs. Bennett had to contact the journalists and apologize for having misled them.

The final blowup between Bennett and the council came after the social protest, in the summer of 2011. He believed the protest would lead to a general election, and that he and his colleagues should support it. Council leaders eventually decided, however, to keep their main focus on the settlements and not become involved in other issues. Bennett was unhappy with the decision, and argued that it was time for the council to reach new audiences, deal with other issues, break through the Green Line and so on.

Dani Dayan was abroad once again, and Bennett went on his own authority for a round of glad-handing with protesters on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard. Upon his return, Dayan called Bennett in and dismissed him.

His own ideas

Last February, Bennett published what he called a "calming plan," which talks about annexing Israel-controlled Area C, where most of the settlements are situated; granting citizenship to Palestinians residing there; transferring the Gaza Strip to Egypt; and investing massively in infrastructure, so as to improve the material conditions under which

Palestinians live. The proposal had been born in the Yesha Council, and at internal meetings it was decided that Bennett would float those ideas as a trial balloon. After he was dismissed, however, he presented them as his own.

In conversations with close associates, Bennett has said that the principles of that plan are not important, but rather the very fact of its presentation, in face of the question often posed to the settlers by people on the left: “So, what is your plan?”

Bennett joined Likud in January 2007. He took advantage of his time in council to deepen his relationships in the party. His political patron was Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon. An associate of Bennett’s has told Haaretz that Bennett wanted to run for a spot on the party’s Knesset slate for one of the Likud districts, but discovered that Netanyahu would do anything to prevent his election. Nonetheless, his colleague Ayelet Shaked did run for the Likud central committee in January 2012, and was elected.

Bennett discussed starting a new party together with Shaked and Rabbi Avichai Ronsky, the former army chief rabbi, but in the end decided against it. The collapse of last spring’s unification maneuver between Kadima chairman MK Shaul Mofaz and Netanyahu led Bennett to conclude that it would be better to be the leader of Habayit Hayehudi because otherwise he would be accused of splitting the religious bloc. In May he declared his candidacy for the chairmanship of the party, and in its primary last November, he won, with more than two-thirds of the vote.

Naftali BennettCredit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

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