Naftali Bennett: Israel’s far-right prime minister in waiting | Israel

Naftali Bennett does not believe in a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. His aim instead is to “manage” it in perpetuity and always from a position of ultimate Israeli control over Palestinians.

The hardline religious nationalist, once the head of a prominent Jewish settler group and now expected to become Israel’s next prime minister, is open about his plans for millions living under occupation.

A video posted on his official YouTube page presents a colourfully animated account of the far-right politician’s plan, with a lighthearted tone that belies its deeply serious message.

“There are some things that we all know will never happen,” says a narrator in a carefree voice. “The Sopranos will never return for another season … And a peace agreement with the Palestinians will not happen.”

It goes on to detail Bennett’s vision. First is the annexation of most of the occupied West Bank, which it argues is essential not only for security reasons – allowing hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers to remain there – but also because Israel wants control over its water resources.

The proposal, based on a seven-point plan Bennett released in 2012, would squeeze most West Bank Palestinians into urban enclaves with limited control over their lives. A few tens of thousands would be granted Israeli citizenship, to “counter any claims of apartheid”, the document states.

People in the geographically separate West Bank and Gaza Strip would not be allowed a “connection” to each other, for fear of bringing “the violence, instability and problems” of Hamas-run Gaza into the West Bank.

Finally, the proposal makes clear that Palestinians would never be able to create a state in the West Bank, over which Israel would maintain “complete security control”.

Some critics of Israel inside and outside the country argue the current reality in the occupied territories looks a lot like Bennett’s plan, as does a now-abandoned proposal drawn up by the Trump administration.

Benjamin Netanyahu – still prime minister, for now – has also said he intends to annex large parts of the West Bank in the future. Bennett was once Netanyahu’s chief of staff and a member of his Likud party, and headed the education and defence ministries in his cabinets. Menachem Klein, a senior lecturer in political science at Bar-Ilan University, refers to Bennett as “Netanyahu compatible”.

Netanyahu and Bennett on a visit to an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights in November 2019.
Netanyahu and Bennett on a visit to an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights in November 2019. Photograph: Atef Safadi/POOL/EPA

Still, while Netanyahu would temper his nationalist ambitions when speaking in English to an international audience still focused on a two-state solution, Bennett’s unabashed pro-settler, biblically inspired zeal would bring the country into a new era.

The 49-year-old is infamous for incendiary comments about the Palestinians.

He said in 2013 that Palestinian “terrorists should be killed, not released”, and in 2018 – the same year Palestinians rallies at the Gaza frontier were met with lethal force – Bennett said Israeli troops should have a “shoot to kill” policy, including for minors.

“I would not allow terrorists to cross the border from Gaza every day,” he said. Asked about the army targeting children, he replied: “They are not children. They are terrorists. We are fooling ourselves.”

As education minister, Bennett supported a law used to ban groups critical of the armed forces or the state from entering schools and speaking to students. “Anyone who wanders around the world attacking soldiers will not enter a school,” Bennett said when the bill passed.

His rhetoric and firing up of his hardline base have, however, at times come back to haunt him.

To become prime minister in waiting, he has made a deal with the head of the opposition, Yair Lapid, who Bennett has long derided for his ostensible support for a two-state solution. Lapid is ideologically at odds with Bennett and his Yamina party, but needed his seats for a majority, and the two have described each other as friends in recent days.

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Who is Yair Lapid?

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A telegenic former TV news anchor popular with secular middle-class Israelis, Yair Lapid is the recently installed head of the opposition who  has been tasked with forging a governing coalition before a Wednesday deadline.

Lapid’s Yesh Atid party has promised to lower the cost of living and reduce the power of religious authorities, for example, by bringing in civil marriage.

The 57-year-old has described himself as a centrist and somebody who supports a two-state solution. However, Lapid also said he was a “security hawk” and that there were some issues he would not compromise on in any future negotiations with the Palestinians, such as control over Jerusalem, a critical issue in the crisis.

“The Palestinians want to destroy us more than they want to build a nation,” he said in a recent interview with the Times of Israel. “And as long as this is the situation, there will be no two states.” Oliver Holmes

Photograph: Debbie Hill/UPI POOL

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“The left is making far from easy compromises here, when it bestows upon me … the role of prime minister,” Bennett said in a speech late on Sunday.

The deal has infuriated rightwing voters who see Bennett as going back on his principles to ally with a man they thought he detested. People have protested against the deal outside Bennett’s family home in Ra’anana, an affluent town north of Tel Aviv, where he lives with his secular wife, a former pastry chef, and their four children. His security detail has had to be upgraded.

The son of immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett was in an elite Israeli military unit before becoming a hi-tech millionaire by selling an anti-fraud software company to a US security firm for $145m (£102m) in 2005.

Israelis protest against Bennett’s plan to form a coalition with Yair Lapid, in Tel Aviv.
Israelis protest against Bennett’s plan to form a coalition with Yair Lapid in Tel Aviv. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

On some issues, the former commando is less conservative than his colleague on the hard right, including LGBTQ+ rights and the relationship between religion and state. He is pro-free market and pledged to break up “big unions”.

His main ambition, however, relates to Israel’s control of the entire land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. Under the deal with Lapid, it is expected that no big decisions will be made on the issue of the occupation, as it could cause the delicate ideologically diverse coalition from breaking apart.

Still, after decades of promoting settlement expansion and a permanent grip over Palestinian land, Bennett is not expected to sit idly if he makes it to high office.

Sami Abu Shehadeh, a parliamentarian from Israel’s Arab minority, said this week it was “unthinkable” that he would support such a Bennett-led government just to get Netanyahu out, as other anti-occupation politicians had done.

A Bennett administration, he said, is “light years away from democratic change” and “supports the settlements and the continuation of the siege on Gaza, and sanctifies the institutionalised mechanisms that perpetuate Jewish superiority and the marginalisation of the Palestinian citizens.

“We absolutely oppose Prime Minister Netanyahu and view him as being dangerous for the entire region, but a fundamental change needs to be made in policy, not just personnel changes,” he said.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2017, Bennett said there would not be a Palestinian state on his watch. “It’s just not going to happen. A Palestinian state would be a disaster for the next 200 years.”

Under his seven-point plan, there never will. That idea has much more humble aspirations for the Palestinians than self-determination, such as investment in joint industrial zones – many of which are currently run by settlers and staffed by Palestinians – and the upgrading of roads and intersections. “We don’t like long traffic jams, and understandably neither do they,” the plan states.

Bennett’s vision has a different target audience than the fate it puts on Palestinians. At the end of his YouTube video, casual drums and guitar music plays as the closing message is displayed: “Doing what is good for Israel.”

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