After what he described as “a crazy weekend,” Habayit Hayehudi head Naftali Bennett sought to further distance himself from remarks made last week in which he said he would refuse an order to evict Jews from their homes in the Palestinian territories.
Speaking in English to a large, international crowd at the Tel Aviv port on Sunday evening, Bennett, a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces, called such a command “too much to tolerate” but said the obligation to obey orders supplanted one’s personal convictions.
“Every soldier has to obey democratically given orders, myself included,” he said, before launching into a discussion of his business experience and political platform.
As head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party, he said his two-fold mission is “to restore the Jewish soul to Am Yisrael” and to “make it possible for anyone [Jewish] to live in Israel, especially young people.”
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Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bennett said succinctly: “I will do everything in my ability, forever, to prevent a Palestinian state from being founded within the land of Israel.”
Once elected, he said his first priority would be to make housing more affordable, noting that real estate prices have increased by 40 percent during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s term in office.
“All products are too expensive, and it’s just one of the toughest places to live price-wise in the world,” he said. “I almost see that as un-Zionist.”
Calling the ultra-Orthodox “our brothers and sisters,” Bennett said that Torah study is vital to the Jewish people but added that “the current situation where most Haredim don’t work and don’t serve is untenable, it’s unacceptable.” The line drew heavy applause.
Instead of forcing all of the ultra-Orthodox to enlist, Bennett said the state must create more opportunities for those who are willing to serve in some way. He said he had conducted his own research and found that there are many more ultra-Orthodox who want to enlist in the military or do national service than there are open slots for them.
“They have the biggest sanction over them already: poverty,” he said. “They don’t want to be poor anymore, especially the young generation.”
When asked his views about religious equality in Israel, and specifically about the arrests of women who participate in monthly prayer services at the Western Wall organized by the group Women of the Wall, Bennett said he subscribes to the principle of “live and let live.”
“The flip side is we want to retain the Jewish identity of the state,” he said. “It’s something that we have to sit down and have a dialogue [about]. Some things won’t happen the way you want.”
Bennett's appearance was arranged by the Tel Aviv International Salon, which also invited Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid to speak to its patrons earlier this month. The son of American immigrants who moved to Israel before he was born, Bennett frequently played to the international audience.
Alluding to the firestorm over his remarks about disobeying orders, he quoted U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, who said that “there is no effort without error and shortcoming.” At one point he feigned a strong Israeli accent and joked about cultural differences between Israel and America, where he spent several years running a hi-tech company. With a wink to the current administration, he noted that there are no Hebrew words for “competence” or “accountability.”
A potential voter, who gave his name as Mitch B. and who immigrated to Israel from Baltimore four years ago, said he was not entirely swayed by Bennett’s pitch. “I like that he’s self-made in America, so I think he knows how to get things to work efficiently without corruption,” he said. “My concern is that he lacks certain leadership characteristics. He’s not a Bibi.”