Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor for The Washington Post.
Naftali Bennett, a former tech guru who co-founded Cyota, a cybersecurity software company in the United States, is not just Israel’s new education minister. Because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing coalition government wields such a slim majority in parliament, Bennett is also a kind of kingmaker — able to influence Netanyahu’s policies in exchange for the majority his party helps furnish. He told The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth this past week that Israel should annex large parts of the West Bank. Edited excerpts of their interview follow:
How do you like the makeup of this new government?
We can do great things. It’s challenging because we have only 61 [of the Knesset’s 120] members in the coalition. We have no margin for error.
You’ve said, “We’ll never give the land back to the Palestinians”?
Not back — away. I don’t believe in giving up our land. I think it’s a profound mistake. The past several decades have taught us that every time we gave up a piece of land, immediately it turns into a launchpad for radical Islam. It happened in Lebanon [and in the West Bank]. We gave up land and got the Second Intifada, with over 1,000 Israelis blown up in our cities. We gave up Gaza, handed it over to the Palestinians, and now we have an unsolvable problem. When something doesn’t work, you change course. A growing portion of Israelis have come to adopt my point of view, which is why Bibi effectively adopted my view during the recent elections.
So do you have any solution in mind for the Palestinians, or do you want to just continue to occupy them?
There’s no perfect solution. When you’re in a region which is disintegrating into tribes, and you’ve got ISIS butchering people, and Hamas and Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra knocking on your fences, the last thing you do is give up land. The very same people who are applying pressure on Israel to concede in Judea and Samaria [Jewish names for the West Bank] told us to get off the Golan Heights. Had we listened, we’d have ISIS swimming in the Sea of Galilee right now.
You act like it’s only outsiders who are pressuring Israel. There are also Israelis who think it would be wiser and smarter to keep a democratic, Jewish state by coming to a solution with the Palestinians.
In Judea and Samaria, there are two areas. There are the Palestinian-controlled areas that are called A and B, and the Israeli-controlled area, which is called C. My approach is for the Palestinians to have almost full self-governance in their area. . . . I have no desire to govern them. In Area C, we will apply Israeli law and Israeli sovereignty.
But that’s 60 percent of the West Bank.
So you basically annex Area C?
Yes, and offer full Israeli citizenship to those Palestinians who live in Area C. They’d be able to vote for the Knesset. . . . I don’t think peace is achievable right now. But they can live, and we can live. What I would do is massively invest in the lives of Jews and Arabs living in this area. Everyone’s got to realize — we’re not going anywhere.
You have too much international experience to believe that the international community will find your solution acceptable.
I think they’re wrong.
But there’s not a chance in the world they’re going to agree —
Okay, so let’s wait with it. They would be against annexation. I’m against forming a Palestinian state.
Unless you transport all the Palestinians to Jordan, what do you do?
No, no. By my plan, not one Jew and not one Arab is going to be expelled from his house. You don’t destroy people’s houses. But we agree to not agree. I think that forming a Palestinian state in the heart of Israel is crazy. The world thinks I’m mistaken. Gotcha.
At least can we do joint industry. Can we revamp the infrastructure jointly? Can we make life better for everyone while we continue to disagree on the ultimate solution? Everyone’s so obsessed with some perfect solution that we’re missing what we could do immediately.
Since 1990, I’ve been a major in the reserves, in a special forces unit. I’ve participated in every conflict since 1990. It’s the worst thing. I want peace more than most people. But the question is how do you achieve quiet? And I submit that tearing out parts of our land and handing it over to the Palestinians is a clear recipe for disaster.
Are you in favor of building settlements beyond the Green Line?
Yes, absolutely, but only in Area C. Unfortunately, my position is not the current position of Netanyahu. We differ on this.
Have you talked to him about it?
We talk a lot. His vision is a different one — his vision is a two-state solution.
Even though he said he’s against it during the campaign?
Once, during the elections, he said it’s unviable. I think that was because he realized that the Israeli public supports my position. But now he’s clarified that he supports a two-state solution.
Isn’t Israel isolated now?
That’s too strong a word. There’s criticism. . . . We’re not perfect. But to sit and point fingers and criticize Israel again and again when people are chopping off heads just a few kilometers from us? That’s unfair.
Your party holds quite powerful government positions.
We do. We’re placed in very central positions in this government. In the Ministry of Justice, we have Ayelet Shaked, who is an extremely talented individual.
Is it true she wants to undermine the independence of the Israeli supreme court by making the selection of justices more political?
It’s a matter of balance between the branches — between the government, the courts and especially the legal advisers. We think there’s been too much activism over the past 20 years.
How do you feel about the defense minister’s argument that Israel should have separate buses in the West Bank for settlers and for Palestinians?
I’m not familiar with all the details. Certainly I oppose any sort of segregation. At the same time, we need to take care of the security of the passengers.
In the previous campaign, you said you wanted the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army. What’s your position now?
Many of them didn’t work, and most of them didn’t serve. My position was that it’s way more important to get them jobs, and it’s important, but less so, to get them to serve. Why? Because our army has been doing fine for 67 years without the ultra-Orthodox. Our economy will not do fine if there’s a growing part of the population that doesn’t work, doesn’t pay taxes and takes welfare.
Do you agree with the prime minister that Iran is a big threat?
Yes. The overwhelming majority of Israelis support the prime minister’s position vis-a-vis Iran. If this deal comes through, even before Iran acquires the nuclear weapon — which it inevitably will — I think we’re going to see a nuclear race in the world’s most dangerous and crazy region.
What about the talk about this government’s desire to put restrictions on the press because it allegedly favors the left? Do you go along with this?
No, I’m a big supporter of having a vibrant media. I myself have felt the wrath of the media, but that’s part of what a good democracy is.
Is part of your job the education of the ultra-Orthodox?
Yes, I’m in charge of the education of all 2.2 million Israeli children, including the Arabs and Druze and Bedouin and ultra-Orthodox and secular. They’re all my children. One of my big areas of focus is reducing the inequality that exists in Israel between the rich and poor. . . . The reality is, if you were fortunate to be born to rich parents, you have a better chance of succeeding in life. And that’s wrong.
You seem modern and hip — so unlike a person who would take this position on the Palestinians. Do you really think you can just annex this land and just take Area C?
No, no, I understand that part won’t happen tomorrow. The annexing part is not going to happen, just as the Palestinian state part won’t happen. There are two different visions. So let’s focus on what we do agree on. . . . I think I’m considered more dovish than others. Others say, “I don’t want to think about that.” But [the Palestinians] are here. They exist, we exist.
What’s the answer?
Making lives better for 2.5 million people, Jews and Arabs. What’s the catch? There is no catch. Just do it.
Do you want to become prime minister one day?
I want to do good for Israel. My philosophy is let’s do good stuff, and let’s see what happens. And que sera, sera.