Religious-Zionist leader Naftali Bennett has reached an “arrangement” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to refrain from mutual attacks during the upcoming Israeli election campaign. Bennett told a Washington audience on Saturday that there has been a “sea change” to the right in Israeli public opinion in recent months and that he and Netanyahu hope to form a “national bloc” that will run the next Israeli government.
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Bennett was speaking at the Saban Forum held at the Willard Hotel near the White House in an often-testy interview conducted by former peace envoy Martin Indyk, now vice president of the Brookings Institution, which hosts the forum. Both interlocutors accused each other of living in a “different reality” while host Haim Saban said Bennett “lived in a bubble.”
Bennett was unabashed in his disdain both for the two-state solution as well as the entire “peace industry," as he called it, including the forum which he was addressing. “Stop obsessing about the thing we can’t solve,” he exhorted his audience, suggesting that the funds devoted to “the whole industry of peacemaking that goes from one conference to another” would be better invested in improving the infrastructure in Judea and Samaria for the “Jews and Arabs who live there and aren’t going anywhere.”
He said that the participants at the Saban conference do not represent the people of Israel: “If I did a poll here, [Meretz leader] Zehava Galon would be prime minister and [former Foreign Minister] Tzipi Livni her number 2,” he said. “But the only problem with Israel is that they put the polling booths across the country and actually let the people speak up. And the healthy public does not think that Jerusalem should be split or that our land is occupied. No one thinks any more that handing over land will bring us peace.”
Bennett defended his plan to annex Area C in the West Bank, though he suggested that he’s not “married” to it and that it could take 20-40 years to evolve in any case. But he said “we have to undo decades of nonsense that the peace process has been fermenting, that brings us to a positon where the world says we’re occupiers in our own land.” Bennett said he was undeterred by the international condemnation and boycott that could greet such a move. “Anyone who boycotts Israel is an anti-Semite,” he said.
Bennett dismissed claims that an annexation would pose a demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish character, saying that it is a Palestinian state alongside Israel that posed such a danger. “You would hear the swoosh of six million Palestinian refugees returning to Nablus and Jenin,” he said, from where they would go on to Israel proper. He said that he would tell the American president that any withdrawal from the West Bank would be tantamount to “national suicide.”
Bennett said at the same time that he has the “deepest respect” for the U.S. administration and that the relationship between the two countries is “strong enough to weather any local disruptions.” Asked about his own disparaging statements about Secretary of State John Kerry, Bennett said “we have profound disagreements with the U.S., but it should be done with respect.” Bennett said that Netanyahu had told him several times that Kerry is a true friend of Israel.
Bennett refused to respond directly to repeated questions about whether he is in the running for the prime minister’s job, though he said that becoming PM “is not an obsession with me.” Bennett said that although he has a lot to learn before becoming prime minister, the most important trait needed for the job is “an internal spine.” He said that the elections and the political situation in Israel now are “chaotic” but seemed to dismiss reports of last-ditch efforts to avert the March 17 ballot. He added that the elections will be “about whether Israel will adopt a policy of strength or a policy of weakness, of fortitude or of appeasement.”
Bennett defended the proposed Israel as a Jewish nation-state laws, saying they were needed in order to “balance” the existing tilt in favor of democracy and human rights. Bennett made plain that one of his aims is to reverse the activist judicial course initiated by former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak. He claimed that currently, the Supreme Court could accept a petition mandating that Birthright include Arabs as well or one that said the Law of Return was discriminatory because it applied only to Jews. Bennett said that ultimate goal is that Israel serve as “a Jewish lighthouse in Muslim storm.”