Interview: Naftali Bennett in London

What occupation? The word Israel’s ‘straight-talker’ won’t say in London

By Anshel Pfeffer, February 20, 2014
Naftali Bennett (Photo: AP)

Naftali Bennett (Photo: AP)

“If you say the right things, then you’re very popular,” says Economy Minister and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett with an ironic smile. “The media embraces you, the world embraces you, but in the end it will be my children and me paying the price. I’m not prepared to give up the truth for popularity.”

About to embark on his first ministerial visit to Britain this weekend, Mr Bennett is fully aware that he is viewed by many as the intransigent element in the Israeli government, the main obstacle preventing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from making a historical compromise.

The first-time Knesset member and high-tech entrepreneur believes he can perform a delicate balancing act. He is both the official face of Israeli innovation and technology and the cabinet’s leading hardliner, especially since Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman began adopting a more conciliatory tone.

He energetically fulfils both roles, insistent that they are not contradictory. “We talk about the territories the whole time, we’ve been doing that for the last 45 years and we can go on doing it for another 45 years. Meanwhile we have a wonderful country and we are far from realising its full potential.”

He is trying to change the narrative, knowing that the media will keep dragging him back. “I don’t accept the term ‘occupation’ [which in Hebrew means also conquest], he insists. “You can’t be a conqueror in your own home.”

I don’t believe a peace deal will be reached… but I won’t stand in their way

Mr Bennett is also Diaspora Affairs Minister and is concentrating most of his short visit to the UK on engaging with the Jewish community in London. He knows that the great majority of diaspora Jews, unlike him, believe in a two-state solution. Instead he hopes to focus talk on “a general vision for Israel, a vision of tikun olam,” and to posit the country as “a lighthouse in the storm with a strong economy, a strong army and strong historical roots that go back 3,700 years”.

Mr Bennett suggested offering “semi-citizenship” to diaspora Jews in a recent interview, but did not elborate what that would entail.

The success of his visit to the UK will be measured partly in his ability to shift the conversation beyond the political and diplomatic issues, and towards Israel’s advantages in fields such as desalination, alternative energy, biotechnology and cyber-security, where it “brings benefit for itself and the world.”

He barely succeeds in concealing his impatience with questions on the peace process. Instead, he prefers to speak about his experiences on a recent trip to India where his ministry has been involved in building 11 advanced farms which have helped local farmers increase their yields tenfold. And, of course, there is Cyota, the encryption company he co-founded that he claims supplied the software that facilitates 70 per cent of online banking transactions in the UK. “We do good in the world, that is Israel’s destiny and mission.”

And yet, the diplomatic issues are inescapable. Three weeks ago, Mr Bennett attacked US Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned Israel of a rising tide of boycotts if the peace process fails and accused him of serving as “a mouthpiece” for antisemitism.

Last week, he led a walkout by Habayit Hayehudi MKs during a speech by President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, who questioned whether Israelis enjoy larger water allocations than Palestinians in the West Bank. In the interview, he barely tones down his criticism. “I expect Israel’s friends to fight BDS when they see it. It’s antisemitism, pure and simple.” Mr Bennett claims to be unfazed by the threats. “Israel has faced boycotts before, it’s nothing new and I’m not scared by it.”

He sees no prospect of a peace agreement in this generation. “They tried everything — no-one could have gone further towards the Palestinians than Ehud Barak, we got a 1,000 deaths in return.” So he has little patience with foreign statesmen — or, as he calls them, “diplomats from around the world with their dream to bring us peace”.

Not that he is blocking the talks, he insists. “I said to Bibi, you want to bring peace? Well I don’t believe an agreement will be reached but I will do what no other leader of the right has ever done, I won’t disturb. Go do it Tzipi! It won’t work but I won’t stand in their way. Sit down with the Palestinians as much as you want. If you do reach a comprehensive agreement, let’s have a national referendum — but what I won’t agree to is more concessions on the way.”

He adds: “This is our land and our right to it is set out in the Bible, that is the foundation. And yes, there are two million Palestinians in the West Bank and I don’t want to govern them. But there is no chance for a perfect deal like the West wants, and there are things we should be doing meanwhile, like helping the Palestinians improve their economy.

“Look, 2012 was a great year in the West Bank and Jerusalem, not one Israeli was killed. And then people come from outside who don’t understand the situation and think that they can bring peace by magic.”

Last updated: 2:17pm, February 20 2014