Naftali Bennett is a man of deep faith. He prays every day, wears a yarmulke in keeping with Jewish tradition, and studies the Bible regularly. It’s been just one month since he won his first political primary election, and already he’s being described as a “rising political star.”
As the newly elected head of Israel’s right-wing Jewish Home party, Bennett is expected to capture as many as 10% of Knesset seats - as the most recent polls suggest - which would make his the third largest party and thus a serious contender to join the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the January 22 elections.
Traversing Israel as he speaks to voters, meeting foreign ambassadors, defending Israel on CNN and the BBC, the 40-year-old father of four even has time to write a weekly Bible study column on his Facebook page.
Bennett takes pride in the military background of his party’s candidates; he himself was a Major in the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) famed Sayeret Matkal field-intelligence reconnaissance unit and still serves in the military reserves. After his army service, Bennett entered the business world, founding the Israeli high-tech company Cyota where he channeled his high-intensity IDF experience fighting terror to combat fraud. He even named his first war-room to combat online banking fraud and phishing the “Anti-Fraud Command Center.”
Before he and his partners sold the company for $145 million when he was 33-years-old, they created 140 jobs in a country hungry for hi-tech employment opportunities.
His wildly successful business career and firm grasp of Jewish tradition provide Bennett with a unique perspective that he would like to share with Israelis, many of whom face great challenges stretching their paychecks to the end of each month.
In his weekly Bible column posted on Facebook this past Friday, Bennett wrote about the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis, when God endowed Joseph with the ability to interpret Pharaoh’s prophetic dreams of fat and thin cows and sheaves of wheat, which predicted seven years of prosperity, then seven years of drought, famine and rough economic times ahead for ancient Egypt. Bennett writes that today we can learn from the lesson of Joseph saving the world from starvation which he says is in essence about “responsible economic leadership.”
“Joseph understands that the period of abundance in Egypt is about to begin. The most tempting thing to do in these times is to hand out perks to everyone. There’s money! Let’s spread it out! But Joseph is realistic and sees ahead,” Bennett writes. Instead, Joseph stored food for the famine that was set to strike.
Slamming his more socialistically-minded political foes, Bennett writes: “There are those who want to pour out 138 billion shekels [$37 billion] that we simply don’t have. Others allow financiers and speculators to choke the economy for their own personal needs.” He says the wise economic leader, like Joseph, will promote free market economics coupled with a commitment to supporting the weak.
TheBlaze caught up with Bennett on Tuesday after he met with a group of aspiring entrepreneurs at the prestigious Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa to share the story of his amazing business success, which he attributes to the industriousness, dedication, and humility he and his teammates shared.
In an interview with TheBlaze, Bennett said:
Israel’s economy is good. But it needs improvement in freeing it up from the very big unions which are choking it and thus increasing prices, and freeing it up from monopolies that we have that are too abundant. And if we take a few actions to free up the economy, we’ll see a huge boom. It‘s sort of like a spring that will let go and release all of the energy... The big unions and the big monopolies have been plaguing us for many, many years, and that’s what’s raising the cost of living which is perhaps the single biggest problem in Israel today. Israel has become very expensive.
Bennett spoke with us about other issues of importance to him, such as the Land of Israel, American support for his country, and how as leader of a traditionally religious party, he’s now reaching out to voters who define themselves as secular.
Earlier this year, Bennett proposed -- in what became known as the “Bennett Plan” --- that the Israeli government unilaterally declare full Israeli sovereignty over part of the West Bank – known to Jews biblically as Judea and Samaria. His plan was designed to help secure Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, creating a wider territorial buffer around the nation’s capital and economic center.
This is the same territory on which more moderate Palestinians say they want to establish their state, while the more radical groups like Hamas say they will never give up even one inch of what they call “Palestine,” which they believe includes all of Israel.
Bennett once described Israel as the size of a “crumb,” explaining why he opposes territorial compromise. He told the BBC in December:
All of Israel is one three-hundredth of the size of the United States. All of the Land of Israel is a tiny, tiny state, which is sort of a little island in an ocean of Islamic and Arab nations. So whoever talks about severing it is taking this little crumb and cutting it into two, which is unacceptable.
Before running for Knesset, Bennett headed the Yesha Council which represents the 350,000 Jews living in Judea and Samaria and advocates for building more Israeli housing there and in east Jerusalem, a policy the U.S. government opposes. For example, after the Netanyahu government announced plans for building homes for Israelis in northern Jerusalem earlier this week, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland chose particularly critical words, calling the move part of a “pattern of provocative action.”
Bennett wants Americans to understand why territorial compromise with the Palestinians could threaten Israel’s security:
Because of the amount of media exposure to Israel you might think Israel is a huge country, something similar to the United States. The reality is, it’s the size of New Jersey. It’s tiny. If you ride from one side to another of pre-1967 Israel, it’s about a 10 minute ride from the Mediterranean to the Green Line. All in all from one side to another it’s an hour if you include Judea and Samaria, aka, the “territories.” One hour is all it takes from Tel Aviv to the Jordan valley. That’s how narrow Israel is. It’s sort of like a long hot dog structure, and it’s very, very narrow. As to what we’re being asked: Imagine someone takes a bite out of the hot dog and leaves only a very thin crust, that’s what we’re expected to do. It’s not going to happen.
He shared with TheBlaze why the Land of Israel is important to him as a Jewish man:
It has belonged to the Jewish people for over 3,800 years and it’s our home. It’s always been our home. Sometimes when we talk about potential concessions, people talk about security and other considerations, but first and foremost it’s ours. Yes, there are other reasons but just like America wouldn’t even think of negotiating Washington DC, I always find it absurd that we can negotiate our land and even Jerusalem regardless of any other consideration.
Bennett appreciates the support Israel has from the American people, a support he believes transcends the political debate in America. Asked if he felt President Barack Obama’s reelection reflected a waning in that support, he said:
Israelis feel that America and Americans are our best friend. We feel that we share the same values of freedom of faith as most Americans and we know that this connection goes beyond any individual.
The son of American immigrants to Israel, Bennett believes that Americans and Israelis are bound by their core values:
I’m a Major in the reserves in the military. I fight from time to time. Knowing that we have millions of American friends who care about us who deeply care about each of us and Israel as a nation that provides us a degree of security of knowing that America will be there for us. That’s very fundamental to our ability to exist and thrive in a very difficult neighborhood. And beyond anything I just want to say thanks, a big thank you to the millions of Americans who care about Israel. We need your care, we need your support, just being there as a friend.
Media reports in Israel suggest Bennett is making major headway among young voters and is also actively reaching out to non-religious Israelis. Bennett says he’s committed “to break the barriers between the various segments in Israel and go back to the basic fact that we’re all one nation.”
As a high-tech veteran who Bloomberg News recently labeled a “cyber whiz,” Bennett is harnessing the power of social media for his campaign. This week, he turned to the public to help produce his party’s television ads, seeking submissions of video and graphics. Jewish Home Campaign Manager Moshe Klugheft said, "The wisdom of the masses is better than that of any professional."
It's a message that seems to be catching on in Israel.