American Jews are wondering: Just how crazy is Israel’s economy minister and head of the Habayit Hayehudi party, Naftali Bennett? And how much damage will he do to Israel’s wellbeing and standing in the world? While no one is saying so out loud at the moment, the fear is that he is indeed crazy – in the sense that he is profoundly out of touch with political realities and is capable of inflicting tremendous harm to Israel’s good name.
With Israel’s election campaign underway, Bennett’s party is polling well. If Benjamin Netanyahu forms Israel’s next government, Bennett will be his primary partner and likely defense minister. And not only that: If Habayit Hayehudi wins the same number of seats as Likud – a not impossible outcome at a time of electoral uncertainty – Bennett could reasonably demand a rotation agreement with Netanyahu that would make him prime minister for half of the coming term.
Not surprisingly, therefore, American Jews are curious about where Bennett stands on the major issues confronting Israel's next government. Until very recently, he has not been well known in America’s Jewish community, despite the fact that he has been a senior minister for almost two years, speaks fluent English, and is also the Diaspora affairs minister. But he is getting everyone’s attention now.
In November, Bennett published an op-ed article in the New York Times, laying out his opposition to a two-state solution. His argument was that two states threatened Israel’s security, but he failed to offer any solution to the multiplicity of problems that would arise from the plan that he proposed. The heart of the proposal is a call for annexing the part of the West Bank now controlled by Israel (Area C) and working with Palestinians to upgrade autonomy in those areas where the Palestinian Authority has civil control (Areas A and B). But the fundamental premise of this proposal is absurd; there is no chance that the Palestinian Authority would cooperate with Israel on “autonomy” after an Israeli annexation of a substantial part of the West Bank. Furthermore, a policy of “occupation forever” will not leave Israel presiding over a peaceful and passive Palestinian population. Instead, she will rule over an angry and restive one. And how would Israel explain her abandonment of democratic principles, which is the inevitable outcome of the Bennett proposal? And how would Israel’s American and European allies respond to such a plan? And, for that matter, where does this leave Mr. Netanyahu, who has declared his support for a two-state solution?
At the Saban Forum in Washington this month, the annual gathering on Israeli-American relations sponsored by the Brookings Institution, Bennett had an opportunity to answer these questions. In a session on December 6, Bennett was challenged repeatedly on how what he was proposing was actually supposed to work. But rather than providing thoughtful responses, Bennett brushed the objections aside, displaying in the process a rather remarkable mixture of disdain for his audience and contempt for his opponents.
Bennett was pressed on how Israel would avoid European and UN sanctions; how Israel could be a democratic state if the Palestinians were to be denied basic human rights; how he could expect Palestinian cooperation while condemning Palestinian leaders as terrorists; how he could maintain the American-Israeli alliance while consistently attacking American policies and leaders; how he would deal with the demographic problem; and so on and so forth. But again and again, Bennett could offer only clichés and platitudes. He would “speak frankly” to the Americans, he assured his listeners – even as he evaded every important question in this address to an American audience –and somehow, magically, he would be able to “change the global view of what is going on” in the Middle East.
American-Jewish leaders in the room were shocked. Israel’s standing in the world is at a low point, and they know how much hard work is required, even in America, to make Israel’s case. How will that case be made, they wondered, if this man, so dismissive of American concerns and of democratic values, is a major voice of Israel’s new government? Even those who care little for Bibi Netanyahu know that Netanyahu-the-rightwing-politician can also be Netanyahu-the-polished-and-effective-diplomat, an articulate defender of Israel’s needs. But how could Bennett ever offer such a defense?
The political profession is not necessarily a noble one, and it is fair to ask whether Bennett really believes every word of what he is saying, or whether he is putting on a carefully choreographed election performance from which he will begin to retreat the day after the March 17 vote. I am betting on the former; the sincerity that Bennett proclaims and sees as a source of his electoral strength seems to be real. And there is nothing in his public record or the record of his party to suggest that his positions are put forward out of convenience rather than conviction.
Nahum Barnea in this week’s Shabbat supplement of Yediot Aharonot quoted two unnamed Washington sources as saying that they hoped for a Bennett victory in the elections because his radical voice and presence in the coalition would make it far easier for the Europeans to impose sanctions on Israel for the settlement activity that Bennett so resolutely advocates. In other words, elements of both the Israeli right and the anti-Israel camp of America and Europe are rooting for a Bennett victory. It is safe to say that mainstream American Jews are hoping for a different outcome.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer and lecturer living in Westfield, New Jersey.