Bennett: Israel doesn’t need recycled politicians, but those who get things done

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Bennett: Israel doesn’t need recycled politicians, but those who get things done

Yamina leader appeals to English-speaking voters ahead of the election in three weeks time

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Education Minister Naftali Bennett attends the Muni Expo 2018 conference at the Tel Aviv Convention Center on February 14, 2018. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90
Education Minister Naftali Bennett attends the Muni Expo 2018 conference at the Tel Aviv Convention Center on February 14, 2018. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

For the first time in decades, the so-called “Anglo” vote may make a difference in the next Israeli elections on March 23 — as party leader after party leader line up to woo the English-speaking Israeli in a series of town hall meetings and interviews. 

The latest to flourish his Anglo credentials is the Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, whose parents were “secular liberals” from San Francisco and Berkeley, California.

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post’s Maayan Hoffman this week, Bennett said that in the 1960s, his father had taken part in civil rights demonstrations in the US — “he was arrested in a sit-in in a hotel that wouldn’t hire black people. I’m darn proud of him. Civil rights and human rights don’t belong entirely to the left”.

Bennett, who was born in Haifa after his parents made aliya in 1967, shuttled back and forth between Israel and north America as a child — but his most influential time in the US came after his army service, in 1999, when he moved to Manhattan to launch a software company.  

It made him a fortune — Bennett is widely referred to as a multi-millionaire — and provided a handy financial cushion when he entered the political arena in 2005, serving as Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff. He finally entered the Knesset in 2013, a move which required giving up his American citizenship. 

Bennett’s relations with Prime Minister Netanyahu have fluctuated wildly over the years, from close “consigliere” to sworn enemy, and have included stints as Minister of the Economy, of Diaspora Affairs, as Education Minister and most recently as Defence Minister. 

Naftali Bennett

All of this means that Bennett, who will turn 49 two days after this year’s elections, has a shrewd idea of what messages will work with the Israeli public. While he won’t rule out the idea of serving with Netanyahu again, he prefers to be seen as ambitious for the top job of Prime Minister himself. He told Maayan Hoffman that he thinks Netanyahu is “afraid” of him and believes he has all the necessary qualifications to serve as Prime Minister. In an interview two weeks ago with i24 television, he declared: “If [Netanyahu] were chief executive of a company he would have been fired by now”. He has attacked Netanyahu’s “competence”, particularly over the Corona crisis, and believes that it is time for Israel to say goodbye to the Prime Minister after 32 years in politics.

In the meantime Bennett, who presents as modern Orthodox and is never seen without a precariously balanced knitted kippah on his closely shaved skull, has big plans. He is ready, he says, “to cut the Gordian knot” when it comes to the strictly Orthodox population. He wants to tell Charedi men at the age of 21 that they are free to do what they want, and exempt from army service for between eight to 10 years.

“Some will stay in yeshiva; but the vast majority will go and get a job, in programming, software, engineering, instead of working in the black economy. They will start paying taxes and stop being a burden. Five years later they will start sending their kids to learn a bit more maths. And five years after that they will send their kids to the army, because they will feel that it doesn’t make sense. Instead of being populist, give them an army exemption, and they are going to flock to get good jobs and pay taxes”.

Bennett deplores the “dirty tricks” which have taken place in recent election campaigns, particularly personal attacks on him and his family. “Netanyahu has attacked my wife [a noted pastry chef] and my son, who is very handsome and who is big on TikTok in Israel. Gidon Sa’ar [Bennett’s main rival for new leader of the right-wing bloc] has been involved in illegal political attacks against me, and has now offered a truce.

“But I have plans. I have plans on Covid, on the economy, on education, on getting jobs. I hope people will realise that what Israel needs now is not recycled politicians but doers, entrepreneurs, people who get things done — and who will work for them and care”.

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