When Naftali Bennett first stood for parliament in 2013 as leader of a newly energized party representing religious nationalists and the pro-settler camp, called Jewish Home, the New Yorker called him “the new phenomenon in Israeli politics.” His parents immigrated to Israel from San Francisco and Bennett speaks lightly accented American English. He was a commando in the Israeli military who became a techie millionaire before entering politics. The Israeli dream fulfilled. He recently sat in the back seat of his campaign van as it idled at Bar-Ilan University, where he was mobbed by students who wanted to take selfies with the candidate. The interview is condensed and edited for space and clarity.
Q: Your campaign slogan is “Stop Apologizing.” Explain that to our readers. Apologize for what? Apologize to whom?
A: Israel has for many years been apologetic about our connection to our land and been willing to chop up our land and apologize as if we did something wrong coming to our home.
My point to the Israeli public is that Israel has been the Jewish homeland for 3,800 years. Any Christian knows it, any Muslim knows it, it’s in the Bible, there is archeology proving it. I don’t understand why we should be expected to chop up our country and give it away to somehow gain sympathy.
This has proved unsuccessful because we gave up Gaza [in a unilateral withdrawal in 2005], we did everything we were asked to do. We pulled back to 1967 lines, took out the soldiers, kicked out Jews and handed it over to Abu Mazen [the common nickname for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas].
What did we get? We got nonstop rocket fire since 2005 and world condemnation stemming from Gaza fighting.
It’s not as if the world comes and says, "You did your part and now we back you." No one says that. They condemn us for defending ourselves against the very repercussions of doing what they told us to do.
It’s unbelievable. So my point to the Israelis is stop feeling like you have to pander to the world. It’s our country and I understand the world is trying to twist our arm with many means, but committing national suicide is not the right policy from our perspective.
Q: You’ve said Israel “should never give land for peace.” You told the students this today. You are very clear, you oppose the creation of an independent Palestinian state. What should Israel do about the Palestinians?
I will tell you. The reality is there is no solution in the foreseeable future for the Israel-Palestinian problem, no full solution. So my approach is different. Let’s agree to disagree and improve things on the ground, economically. What I would push is a Marshall Plan for the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, meaning massive investment in the economy, in infrastructure, in industrial zones, in tourism, to make life better.
Now, this does not solve the problem. I think that is too much to ask right now. I know that Americans think it is easily solvable, that you just need to hand over land, but I think differently and that is the reality. But I want to improve things, let’s improve the quality of life and be content with that.
Q: We've talked about your plan for Israel to annex so-called “Area C,” the 60 percent of the West where Israel maintains full civil and security control. Would you try to get Area C if you serve in the next government?
A: It depends on my political power. I see what is going on, I see the numbers and right now we are at 12 seats, which is where we were in 2013 elections. With 12 seats, you can only go so far.
Q: Why isn’t your party growing? Everyone says the trend in Israel is toward the right.
A: The main issue in this elections is socioeconomic and less the Palestinian or national stuff. It is by the way, the first time that I can recall that the voters are zeroing in on the economy. It’s interesting.
Some thought there might be other issues, like Iran, but there hasn’t been.
Q: Do you think the right-wing parties -- yours and Netanyahu's Likud -- will form the next government?
A: I think so, because the way Israeli politics is structured, the member of Knesset who forms the government is the member of the Knesset who has the greatest chance to form a government.
Use the elimination method. Herzog cannot put the puzzle together. Lieberman will not sit with Meretz, and the ultra-Orthodox will not go with Lapid. The right wing block can do that but Herzog can’t -- even if he has the largest number of seats, which I doubt will happen. He can’t do it.