Naftali Bennett had just sold the software company he founded for $145 million when Israel called up his reserve commando squad in the summer of 2006 to mount a search-and-destroy mission in Lebanon.
Bennett, a major in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, was frustrated with the “lack of fighting spirit” he found among fellow officers during the ensuing month of combat, which he blames for the army’s failure to rout Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters. Now, as head of Israel’s Jewish Home party, he is trying to kindle pride in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and snuff out support for Palestinian statehood.
“I want a more Jewish, a more Zionist Israel,” Bennett, 40, said in an interview. Speaking of the demarcation between Israel and the West Bank territory it captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, he says: “I’m Green Line-blind.”
Bennett’s rejection of a two-state solution puts him in step with a growing number of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political partners. The U.S., Israel’s biggest financial supporter, favors a two-state solution, though officials criticized last month’s United Nations vote to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state.
Netanyahu has accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state provided it’s demilitarized and Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has questioned Netanyahu’s sincerity about supporting a two-state solution and refuses to resume talks unless Israel halts all settlement construction.
Palestinian Authority spokeswoman Nour Odeh says Bennett is proposing an “apartheid-like” vision for the West Bank and its 2.5 million Arab residents that’s “neither acceptable nor realistic.”
Netanyahu is on his way to winning a third term as head of the ruling Likud party, according to polls six weeks before the Jan. 22 vote. To stay in power, he’ll have to form a coalition with smaller parties such as Jewish Home, which could make Bennett one of his Cabinet members.
Bennett, a former head of the Yesha Council that represents some 350,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, has breathed new life into what was previously known as the National Religious Party by appealing to its hawkish youth, says Avraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist.
Bennett’s “business success, military record, religious observance and ability to speak the language of secular people have made him an effective bridge,” Diskin said.
Bennett’s party, which agreed to run on a joint slate with the National Union party, will get 11 seats in the 120-member Knesset, making it the third-biggest faction, according to a poll commissioned by Israel Radio and released on Dec. 6. Jewish Home now has three Knesset seats and the National Union has two.
Netanyahu’s Likud, running on a joint list with the largely Russian immigrant Yisrael Beitenu party, will probably garner 36 seats, followed by the Labor Party with 20. The poll was based on interviews with 560 likely voters and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
The son of American immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett sold Cyota Inc. in 2005 to RSA Security Inc., now a unit of Hopkinton, Maine-based EMC Corp. He says the company’s Adaptive Authentication software product is used to prevent fraud in 70 percent of banking transactions in the U.S. and Canada.
If Netanyahu wins next month, Bennett said he will push to bring Israeli housing prices down by selling off chunks of state-owned land to builders to increase supply. He proposes offering free tracts in under-developed parts of the Negev and Galilee regions to soldiers who have completed their enlistment and want to build homes. Bennett declined to address press speculation that he’ll seek to become housing minister, a position with influence over future settlement construction.
It was the war with Hezbollah -- considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the U.S. -- that propelled him into politics as chief of staff to Netanyahu when he led the parliamentary opposition.
“I should have been in the Caribbean having a cocktail with a little umbrella in it, and instead I find myself deep in Lebanon,” Bennett said in the Dec. 5 interview in the backyard of his home in Raanana, a Tel Aviv suburb. He and his family of four don’t live in a settlement because, he says, “I see no difference between there and here.”
Instead of statehood, Bennett says Israel should offer Palestinians greater sovereignty in the West Bank, while encouraging them to live side-by-side in “a supermarket peace” with the settlers. He calls his plan, which would offer Israeli citizenship to 48,000 Palestinians in areas he hopes to annex, an “imperfect” solution that would foster stability.
“We buy in the same stores, work in the same factories, drive on the same roads,” Bennett said. “We’re not singing Kumbaya together, but it’s beginning to work on the ground.”
Alternatively, “if we try artificially to impose an untenable or impossible peace, that will bring the biggest round of bloodshed we’ve seen,” he said.
For Peace Now, an Israeli organization that advocates withdrawal from the West Bank, Bennett’s plan would mean “the end of Israel as a Jewish democratic state,” said Hagit Ofran, director of its Settlement Watch project. “It will lead to a horrible, continuous conflict and eventually to one state with a Palestinian majority.”
Bennett is critical of Netanyahu for accepting the Egyptian and U.S.-brokered cease-fire that halted the eight-day conflict last month in the Gaza Strip, in which Palestinians fired some 1,600 rockets into Israel and the Israeli air force staged 1,100 air strikes. More than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis died.
Instead, Netanyahu should have used ground forces to cut off southern Gaza from the north and stop the import of missiles through tunnels dug under the border to Egypt, he said.
“We need more stamina,” Bennett said. “If you’re going to shoot, shoot, don’t talk. Don’t hesitate at the last moment.”