Lally Weymouth interviews Israeli politician Naftali Bennett

Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of The Washington Post.

Jerusalem

One of Israel’s new political stars is a successful businessman turned politician — Naftali Bennett, 41, whose party, Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), won 12 seats in parliament in the last election, making him a key cabinet member. Some Israelis describe Bennett as extreme — he admits he wants to annex parts of the West Bank. Others, including many young Israelis, subscribe to his views. This past week, he spoke at length to The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth in his office in Jerusalem. Excerpts:

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Several years ago, you started and sold a high-tech company.

Yes, I founded and sold a company, Cyota, for $145 million. I was the CEO. We founded it in 1999, so I was 27. Then the Second Lebanese War started and I had to go fight, and that gets you thinking: What does Hezbollah want with us? I realized they just don’t want us here. I decided, I’m not going back to the business world, which is really my passion. I’m going to dedicate myself to the state of Israel. At that point in time, [current Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu was the head of the opposition. He was looking for a chief of staff. I joined him for a couple of years, from 2006 to 2008.

You didn’t get along in the end, did you?

We didn’t have a fight, contrary to what people think, but it’s no secret that in the last few years, we’ve not been in touch.

Do you think Netanyahu views you as a rival?

Well, I lead a party that competes with the Likud, so we are political rivals. I highly respect him, but I also have profound disagreements with him.

What do you disagree over?

Netanyahu supports — and he truly does support — building a Palestinian state within Israel.

Why do you disagree with him over that?

What we’ve learned over the past 20 years is that each time we gave up land of ours, within a very short time frame, terrorists initiated severe attacks from that land and killed thousands of Israelis.

You said that you’re “vehemently against a Palestinian state.” Don’t you believe that it’s in Israel’s interest to find a solution to the Palestinian problem?

There’s a disagreement here. It’s legitimate.

What about the demographics? Don’t you worry about them?

I’m actually very optimistic. I think that everyone’s going down a path of a diplomatic process, which is not possible. But there’s an alternative of real peace between people in the field.

There are 1.5 million Arabs in Judea and Samaria, and 400,000 Israelis in Judea and Samaria — a.k.a the West Bank. No one’s going anywhere. These people deserve rights, they deserve to live a good life. What’s happening de facto is there’s growing coexistence. We’re not on the hills singing “Kumbaya” together, but we’re getting along. There are roughly 22,000 Palestinians working side by side with what you call settlers in factories and malls in the West Bank. If you work together, you start understanding each other.

Didn’t you call on Israel to annex Area C [the 60 percentof the West Bank that is under complete Israeli control]?

Yes, I’ll explain everything. . . . They [the Palestinian leaders] don’t accept the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state. So instead of fighting about what we can’t agree on, I would do a Marshall Plan for Judea and Samaria for everyone.

What does that mean?

It means massive economic investment in infrastructure.

Isn’t that what Secretary of State John Kerry’s talking about?

Well, I want to see it happen. I’m happy to push it also. In what’s called East Jerusalem and what’s called the West Bank, there are 700,000 Israelis. In the Gaza Strip, there were only 8,000Jews [before the Israeli withdrawal]. So it’s a whole different ballgame. I know this is a very non-Western statement, but not all problems are solvable; some you have to live with. We have to figure out how we live together with a degree of disagreement. And the advantage that I have vis-a-vis diplomats is that we actually touch the Palestinians day by day.

Do you say “we” because a lot of your followers are settlers?

A bit. I’d say about a third of them — or about a quarter is more accurate. I’m very optimistic. The only way to guarantee sustainable coexistence is by granting the Palestinians full self-governance.

But how can you grant them full self-governance if you’re annexing Area C? And you are in favor of annexing Area C?

Yes, I am, of course. This has always been my opinion. Maybe somebody thought that if I were in the government, I’d change my opinions.

How can you have a state if 60 percent of your land is gone?

It’s not a problem. In Judea and Samaria, there are Palestinian-controlled areas and Israeli-controlled areas. In the Jewish-controlled areas [Area C], there are 400,000 Israelis and roughly 50,000 Palestinians. In the Palestinian-controlled areas, there are about 1.5 million Palestinians, and not one Israeli lives there. So what I suggest is that we annex Area C and offer full Israeli citizenship to the Arabs living in Area C.

But do they want to be Israeli citizens?

I think they’ll jump at the opportunity of getting the benefits of being Israeli — social security and employment.

But how does having more Arabs in your population work for your demographics?

Right now, the demography is good in Israel, and it’s in fact getting better. Generally speaking, the Arab fertility rates have been going down, and the Jewish fertility rates are going up.

But then why are many Israelis worried about the very existence of the state of Israel?

People don’t realize the Palestinian supposed state would be on a mountain, and narrow Israel would be right below. I’ve got four kids. I’m not about to place them right underneath this big mountain. In the longer run, I see some sort of involvement of Jordan.

Do you favor population transfer?

I’m vehemently against population transfer. I’m against expelling anyone from his house, ever — whether it be a Jew or an Arab.

Are you trying to return to the days when the Hashemite Kingdom ruled the West Bank?

I’m not going to tell the Palestinians how to arrange themselves. If they want to have their own entity and their own parliament as they do today, that’s fine. If they want to connect to Jordan, which has a very big Palestinian population, and vote in the Jordanian government, that’s fine.

Do you think this is a realistic scenario?

It’s the only realistic scenario.

Do you think anyone in the international community will agree to this idea?

My problem right now is that the international community is forcing upon us national suicide, because injecting, yet again, a terror state into the heart of our country is national suicide. So what am I to do — say, “You’re pressuring me, so I’ll commit suicide?” There’s no one who wants peace more than me. I’ve fought in every conflict since 1990. I’m willing to do anything possible to make sure the Jewish state continues.

Does Netanyahu really believe in the two-state solution?

I can tell you that Netanyahu is serious about it. He means it. I also understand that this government is proceeding down this approach, and I’m not going to stop it. I’m not going to veto it. I’m not going to do anything to stop the negotiations because this government wants to progress in that direction.

So you’re going to let the government go ahead with Secretary Kerry?

I am. I’m not going to stop negotiations. I think talking is fine. I am very skeptical that it will lead to anything. At the end of the day, at the critical moment, every Palestinian leader balks. I’m very skeptical that Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] will be willing to accept Israel as a Jewish state.

Why not?

Because fundamentally, the conflict is not about a piece of territory — it’s about Israel’s very right to exist.

If President Abbas has one last chance, do you think he will take it?

I don’t think he wants to go down in history as the guy who agreed to have a Jewish state.

It seems pretty obvious that Secretary Kerry’s going to push for a solution.

I’m not going to put any barriers to this. They can talk. I’m not going to dismantle the government.

What about if it comes down to a vote? Would you withdraw from the coalition?

When I get to the bridge, I’ll cross it.

But your followers would not want you to sign, I presume.

I think it’s time for fresh thinking. If the current course has been leading to failure and death, let’s think of another alternative. Let’s start building businesses together, living together, reducing the hate levels.

Reportedly, you and Finance Minister Yair Lapid are friendly, and work together and talk all the time. Does Lapid share your viewpoint?

No. Lapid supports a Palestinian state in Israel, and I oppose one.

Do you see eye to eye on the ultra-Orthodox issue?

Even there we’ve got differences. I’ll tell you what we share: In the election, the issue was the economy, the issue was domestic. Everyone in Israel is exhausted; no one really thinks it [the conflict] is solvable.

So domestic issues united you and Lapid?

Yes, on the economy, on domestic issues and on integrating haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews] into Israeli society. We don’t have a formal agreement. We’re friends.

Do you talk every day?

We talk a lot. I’m also in good contact with the prime minister and our president. I highly respect our president. We talk about the future of Israel because we disagree on the politics.

I bet you do.

Yes, we do. But it still doesn’t change the fact that I highly admire him.

So you said, “I will do everything in my power to make sure they [the Palestinians] never get a state.”

I don’t want to commit suicide, that’s my point. Handing over land over the last 20 years has caused immense devastation to everyone — to Israelis and Arabs.

The Palestinian Authority hasn’t had an election in more than seven years.

That’s right. And by the way, in those elections, Hamas got a majority.

How did Fatah end up in charge?

They disregarded the results. . . . They’re corrupt. If we do found a state tomorrow, it will be a failed and corrupt state. It will disintegrate into another Lebanon. I want to work on the roots. I’m not saying that we can’t reach peace. I’m saying that we have to start living together and working together.

Do you share the prime minister’s concern about Iran?

I think what matters are not the words but the centrifuges. We have to be very cognizant of whether Iran continues to accelerate the pace of uranium enrichment. Over the past year, they’ve tripled the pace.

Would you favor Israel doing something about Iran’s nuclear program?

I won’t go into that, but Israel will not allow itself to be threatened by a maniacal regime that holds nuclear weapons.

How do you see the situation in Syria?

Syria is in a chaotic state, obviously. We are not going to intervene.

Do you think President Bashar al-Assad will survive?

It’s anyone’s guess. . . . We’re going through a chaotic period that might continue for 100 years.

You’re talking about the Arab world?

Yes, the Arab world. It’s not a matter of weeks. It might take decades. Israel is a fortress of democracy in the heart of a very chaotic place. It’s not easy times for us. America’s friendship to Israel is a vital asset to us.

I don’t think Americans will understand why you oppose a Palestinian state.

Should I commit suicide in order to appease everyone? For the Americans — would they be willing to give up the Rockies, which overlook Denver? We’ve got this mountain overlooking us. Would I hand it over to my enemy and pray for the best? We’re not going to do that.

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