Before Israel’s election campaign actually began, the bright new star of the coming campaign was decreed to be Yair Lapid, a strikingly handsome and reassuringly articulate anchorman and newspaper columnist. Already known to the Israeli public, Lapid had the freedom to create a party, Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) that took aim at the dead center of the Israeli electorate, where historically elections are won or lost. He did that, spent months in living rooms talking to people who knew him only from television, and then, when the campaign officially began in November, ended up in the same place as the rest of the Israeli political establishment – watching a man named Naftali Bennett become the center of attention.
Bennett, 40, is the former commando and hi-tech entrepreneur who heads the Jewish Home party, a political organization that predates the founding of Israel, but that’s been on the periphery of its politics for decades. Polls show that, through December, it surged into third place, gathering support almost entirely at the expense of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. The erosion came even though Netanyahu had linked Likud on the ballot with the Yisrael Beinteinu (“Israel Is Our Home”) party of ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman in hopes of creating an electoral fait accompli.
As my magazine article in the new issue of TIME points out, Netanyahu remains almost certain to return as prime minister after the Jan. 22 election. But the story of the election has become how the incumbent spent most of the campaign furiously battling an unexpected challenge from a right flank that had become suddenly exposed despite his embrace of Lieberman. Israel is moving to the political right even faster than Netanyahu calculated, and cannot be expected to slow down. The surge toward Jewish Home is the best evidence of that. Its strength comes mainly from young voters, Jewish Israelis who polls have long shown are more nationalist and more right-wing than their parents. And those same polls show more than half of Israelis consider themselves right wing.
Bennett spoke at length about this phenomenon in the hour I spent with him on Jan. 1, in his office in his campaign headquarters in a high rise in Petah Tikva, northeast of Tel Aviv. He talks about the advantages of running a ”trickle-up” campaign on Facebook, the lesson in candor he learned watching Barack Obama, his surprise that his clever campaign video sketching a plan to annex the West Bank (because peace talks are pointless) went viral, and why he was “pretty worried” that his insurgent campaign was peaking too soon. The full transcript appears below.
We had met several times before, the first time shortly after I arrived in Israel in 2010; we spent a day touring Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Bennett was then executive director of the Yesha Council, the political representative for the nearly 400,000 Israelis who live beyond the Green Line that marked Israel’s border before the 1967 war, when Israeli troops began occupying the Palestinian territories conquered in just six days.
The settlers are no one thing: They include the strictly religious ultra-Orthodox who try fervently to keep the modern world at bay. There are many secular Israelis who settled beyond the Green Line because the government subsidized their lives there, which can be quite comfy. But the archetype is the “ideological settler,” the religious nationalist who is identified first by his colorful knit yarmulke or kippa and, second, by his determined look.
Religious nationalists may be the most motivated people in Israel. Their faith is Orthodox and their nationalism is grounded in the belief that the Old Testament passages referring to the Land of Israel amount to a deed. Like many Israelis they took the stunning victory of the Six-Day War as God’s indication they should have the West Bank forthwith, which Israelis call by the Biblical names Judea and Samaria. The difference is they are more inclined to act on that belief. Many speak openly about “taking over” Israel, assuming the key positions in the military and government once held by kibbutzim—the children of the socialist, quite secular collectives that produced Israel’s founding generation. Already, the nationalist religious bloc wields influence far beyond its numbers, which is perhaps 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. Analysts say this is only partly because of their own efforts. The other part is the gradual retreat of Israel’s secular majority from engagement in public life.
Says Lapid, whose party has been registering fourth or fifth in pre-election surveys: “In the land of ambivalence, those who are determined will flourish.” TIME’s interview with Bennett follows below:
When you spoke to the Foreign Press Association a year or so back, while still director of the settler’s council, it seems like you laid out the themes for what became your campaign.
BENNETT: What did I say?
That Israel is becoming, more Jewish, and young people are becoming more right wing, and there’s more of a Jewish identity. Is that the basis of this?
Yeah. Yeah. There’s sort of a big undercurrent for the past I would say 15 years in this society of returning to the basic Jewish and Zionist values, but it’s not manifested itself yet until these elections in the politics. But in other areas in life, in music, in culture — every Israeli knows the biggest hits of the past decade have been Jewish songs, which was unheard of in the 80s. In the 80s there was not one Jewish song that even entered the hit list. And now, ah, Ana B’Koach [a Kabbalist prayer]. It’s become mainstream. And so Israel is becoming more Jewish. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll explain something a bit deeper. For the 2000 years we were in the disaspora, et cetera, we were all orthodox. All Jews were orthodox, you know, until the 1800s. And then a secular intervention of secular Zionism formed the state. Herzl based on an existential Zionism. He saw that Jews were at risk. He was going to convert them first to Christianity, that was his earlier idea, because he wanted to physically save us. He realized it’s not going to work , and that’s when he came up with the Jewish state. So it was all about a safe shelter, and certainly after the Holocaust it became more relevant. But now we’re 64 years old and the notion of our raison d’etre being a safe shelter is not sufficient. Israel is not the safest place in the world for Jews. Melbourne in Australia is better. Teaneck, New Jersey is safer. We won’t be here to stay if it’s only about shelter. Israel is not only a shelter. And what we’re doing is going back to the sources and moving from existential or security-based Zionism to Jewish-based Zionism. And that’s what it’s about in a deeper sense.
Now specifically the younger generation I think is more – how do you say it?– see things, more, less naïve, whatever the word is, more clear-eyed about reality compared to the older generation that grew up with the peace songs and all of that.
Less idealistic maybe?
No, I wouldn’t say less idealistic.
Less naïve. And now I’m talking vis a vis the conflict. My generation grew up in the 80s with all the peace songs, and the key ideal was peace and we believed in it. But the younger generation that grew up during the Second Intifada is much more realistic, and harbors less illusions about our neighbors. We understand what’s going on in Egypt. We see what’s going on in Syria. In Egypt, where 75 percent of the voters voted for radical Islamic parties, the moderate of them is the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extreme is the Salafists, with 35 percent. Syria. Iran. This generation understands we have to be strong to stay here. And they’re opened minded more than the older generation. Our strategy, from the very beginning, from about 8 months ago, when we started this whole journey was going to the under 30, first-time voters. Israel, contrary to most of the West, has a high fertility rate so there’s a lot of young people in Israel. Most families have three kids as opposed to one or two, so a big proportion of the population is under 30. So while in the general polls we come out as the third largest party, if all voters were under 30 we would be the single biggest party in Israel. Did you know that? These were polls that were published; it collaborates the internal polls.
And we’re seeing it in universities, one after another, give you an example: Sapir College, which is a secular, traditionally left wing campus, in mock elections we came out first place. Pretty much all colleges its either first or second place across Israel. Talking about secular. In religious ones, it’s a no brainer. We come out with Soviet-style results: 70 percent and what have you. But secular, we typically get about 35 percent of votes, which in mandates it’s about 40 seats. The campaign has a certain rationale. It’s a tactic. We call it the trickle up factor. Get the kid, and then they talk about it to their parents. So what we did in the campaign is twofold: through Facebook and social networks — and today barring Bibi we have the biggest Facebook page in Israel, and certainly including Bibi the most active one. Our Facebook page, this one [he swivels the laptop on his desk toward me]. So 85,000 talking about it. There s 116,000 likes, but you can buy likes in Indonesia, but here there’s 85,000 “talking about it”
What does “talking about” mean?
Talking about it means doing something active during the past few days: like, share, or write. So, acted. It’s amazing, 85,000 people did something, did something, pressed a button, besides just viewing. Just to give you a sense, Netanyahu has supposedly 400,000 [likes] but 60,000 talking about it. And he’s prime minister. Yair Lapid has sort of been the most popular, he has 108 [thousand] we have 116, but he’s got only 21,000 talking about it.
From the TIME Archive: 1967, Israel: A Nation Under Siege
Just give you a sense here of, um, [pause, refreshes page] wait a second, here, look, at the pace: a minute ago this guy wrote this, this one two minutes ago, eight minutes ago. This has become the Hyde Park of Israel; everyone talks here.
I actually learned a lot from President Obama. People don’t get it. It’s not about Facebook or Twitter. It’s about talking straight, and being willing to dive into the most sensitive issues, and talk about them honestly. One of the things I learned from him is his famous race speech in the previous campaign, which I thought was a work of art, to take an issue that has always been taboo and talk about it. So I did this for instance with for example the haredim [the ultra-orthodox, who do not serve in the army and rely heavily on welfare] issue, and I think in a way that no one else attempted. You know the populist thing is to say, we need a law tomorrow and all of them will join the army, period. But that’s nonsense. Just on many many issues of religion, of all kinds of issues that have been … [refreshes page again]. …Look here: this is the pace of people joining: new “like” a new “friends” 42 seconds ago. 56 seconds ago. A minute ago, two minutes ago. About two people a minute join this page and follow it. It’s become really the best tool, and I can bypass media. I don’t need media. If I write a good post it can get easily to 800,000 people, because friends of friends — six degrees of separation, right? The second degree of separation is all of Israel, pretty much. The first degree is 116,000, and each of them on average has 200 friends, there’s overlapping, I get to all of Israeli if each one shares. And that never happens, but it’s amazing. I have no filters. And it’s straight-forward talk. It’s never blah blah.
But this is what Lieberman was doing four years ago.
Not online, but in talking [harshly] about Israeli Arabs, what people were saying in private he said in public, and changed the conversation.
No. …. What I say about Israeli Arabs is I’m very pro-Israeli Arab. I’m on the liberal side vis a vis Israeli Arabs. And I say that on record. I’m against the hate talk.
Let’s take the Arab-Israeli issue as a case study. The last thing I ought to do, as a right winger, is support the Israeli Arabs. Why? I’m not going to get any votes there. My point – Look, I’m not an idiot, I’m not going to volunteer all my positions if they’re incredibly unpopular, but two very unpopular positions, are regarding haredim, that I’m not willing to hate them, even though I would gain a seat or two, and Arabs, which I’m not willing to hate them, even though I would gain a seat or two.
So my point is being honest about my real positions – and those are my real positions—and it’s working, somehow. Look, it’s all polls, at the end of the day what matters is on the election day. But what else? I guess the three main issues that I’m pushing… The first issue is values, bringing values back to the center, Zionism, Judaism. Second one is prices, and bringing down prices in housing and products. And the way to do it ultimately is by not giving in to small interest groups, tycoons and the big unions, and also we’re in a unique position because unlike the other big parties, Likud and Labor, I don’t owe anyone anything. I don’t owe the unions anything, like [Labor party chair] Shelly Yachimovich. I don’t owe the tycoons, like some other politicians. I’m free. I only owe the Israeli public.
The Palestinian issues, interestingly I thought it would be irrelevant. I may have talked to you in the past about how no one cares about it. But what I did do was put up the movie, a two minute movie, um, I think we have it in English, only subtitles. It’s a two minute movie has been seen on Facebook by 600,000 Israelis, and may be – certainly one of the most viewed political YouTube things, and in Hebrew, in the history of Israel. There have been songs that have been 2 million, but never a political plan. And it’s especially compelling to the young. The idea, I think you’re well aware of my plan, it’s called the Imperfect Solution, or the Imperfect Peace. But the realistic one.
I remember when you gave me the tour…
I’m not sure back then I had my act together. It was evolving back then.
Anyway but you said: One settler we were having lunch with, in Eli I think, and she was telling us about the Palestinians, and I remember saying to her they would probably find it a little patronizing, what she was saying about liking them and I said they’d want them to have rights of their own. And you jumped in and said, ‘They can’t, unfortunately. It’s a tragedy.’
Which was just: straight up.
Look. I’ll tell you. It’s just not going to happen. We’re now very near 400,000 Israelis in Judea and Samaria. I tell you, when I travel abroad or read a magazine… it’s obvious to me that it’s a fait accompli and there’s going to be a Palestinian state. But when I spend half a day in the field, it’s obvious there’s never going to be a Palestinian state. And this paradox is going to be the source of the friction. Whether you want it or not — I’m not even going into all the arguments why it’s good, why it’s not good — it’s just not going to happen. It’s not going to happen because we don’t have partner. It’s not going to happen because no one’s going to expel 200,000 Israelis, or 160,000, which is the most minimal plan. So it’s time to rethink. I’ve been meeting ambassadors of most of the Western countries over the last few months, and I tell them, ‘Listen, I’m not going to argue whether it’s good or bad, I’m just: assume for a moment, let’s hypothesize, let’s say it’s not going to happen. What do you do? Are we going to keep bashing our heads against the wall, or are we going to try to figure out some form of imperfect reality? But stable. Or do we try to enforce illusions on reality and bring about another round of violence?’ Which is what happened already several times. I’m not suggesting that this plan is the only possible plan. There’s a few others. I’m open, we’re all open. But what I urge the West is to think openly about this. And I regret Netanyahu’s profound mistake in accepting a two-state or a Palestinian state… If you say you support a Palestinian state, then you can’t be surprised if everyone’s pressuring you to do it. In my experience, I lived in America quite a few years, it’s okay to disagree but be straight, say what you mean, and this I think increasingly represents the mainstream Israel. Very few Israelis think there’s going to be an agreement with the Palestinians. That’s why the left wing is so weak and miserable.
I didn’t know this number on your video. Up to now I’d have said this is the election where the Palestinians don’t figure, and it’s kind of set aside because people can’t be bothered with it because it’s not nourishing any more.
Right. Do you have Facebook? Look at the numbers here. There’s 16,700 shares, 68,0000 likes. It doesn’t show here the viewers, but through our tracking mechanism, this is the most shared video ever in Israel. Ever, a Facebook video. We also have it in YouTube but it’s about 40,000 views. If 16,000 share it, each person has 100 friends, that’s 1.6 million people. That’s a lot. It’s amazing, Facebook. I have some new ideas about governing. It’s sort of, typically you go and vote, and then you fulfill your commitment, and in the meantime I have to govern it’s your problem.
Some of Israel’s biggest problems require cooperation with the public. I’ll give you one example. Things are expensive, very expensive in Israel for many reasons. One of the reasons is our ports. It’s a monopoly. They run very poorly. And we have ships that are stuck in the ocean for three or four days or a week, and all that cost is transferred to the products and the consumer. To fix it you need to create a fair open market and competition, but if any politician tries to do that they’ll kick his ass. They’ll hire a consultant, pay 20 million shekels and have big ads: Naftali Bennett is a shmuck, on all the buses in Israel. They’ll break your brand. And they’ll strike. But imagine if you use this tool. And I talk to people, explain to people, we’re all paying 30 percent more for coffee because of this. I want to do this, but they’re going to kick my ass. Are you with me? Are you willing to endure and take it? If I put in temporary employees to endure the strike, will you be with me? So that’s the sort of dialogue, and I think that as leaders of this country we have the right and even the duty to ask people to do things, and not only promise them. I think, ah, as Kennedy said, ask not, et cetera. I can ask people to volunteer, to do this, to do that, it’s a country that belongs to the people, not just the politicians. It’s a model, I haven’t even seen Obama do it yet. He’s never asked the people, that I can recall, I need your help, we need 100,000 volunteers.
It was hard to ask people to sacrifice with the economy the way it was.
That’s right. The only one I remember was Bush, but he asked people: Go out and shop. Do you remember? Very patriotic. Go ahead and shop.
MORE: The Gaza Problem
Are you vulnerable on your list [the candidates running behind you on the Jewish Home ballot]?
There are, ah, folks who are considered right-wing. But we have a very balanced list. I’ll tell you about our list. It’s the youngest list, on average. The first nine candidates all served in combat units, which is very impressive. We have folks from the periphery, from development towns, and, yeah, we have folks also from Judea and Samaria. So everyone likes to put a magnifiying glass on our number ten candidate, which is fine. [Orit Struck, a settler activist from Hebron, is often described as an extremist]. She, ah, I’ve got nothing to hide. That’s politics. The Labor number four called for mothers not to send kids to the army, and Tzipi Livni has Amram Mitzna, which is the most senior officer ever that exercised disobedience. Everyone, you can always look for issues, but by and large it’s a very well-rounded party. We have secular, we have religious for the first time in our party’s history – the party predated Israel. It was founded over 100 years ago, for the first time in history we have a non-religious candidate, in fact a woman, her name is Ayelet Shaked. She’s very very popular. [steps out, returns with flyers] This is Ayelet, this is our list. I’m very proud of the list.
If you weren’t surging, the talk would be of the Likud list.
That it’s right-wing?
How right it is, and how settler and how annexation-oriented it is.
Yeah, but no. You know why? First of all, out of the first 20 on the list, 18 are already members of the Knessett…If anything what we learned in the last year is it doesn’t matter who the list is. The only thing that matters is Bibi, who’s the leader and what his policies are. When he wanted to freeze [settlement construction on the West Bank, at the request of President Obama], he froze, and the reason is that when you are a member of Knesset, and the PM happens also to be the chairman of your party, you have no leverage. He’s the one who’s going to decide if you’re going to be a senior minister or a third or fourth grade level member of the Knesset. You’re not going to mess with him, and that’s what happened. Even though we had the same people … the freeze happened. For heaven’s sake they declared a Palestinian state in Bar-Ilan. It doesn’t matter. The only way to stop it is from the outside, because we have leverage.
Four years ago the story was Lieberman, this outlier, this guy outside the tradition. Now, forget his legal problems, the debate has shifted so far to the right, which is how the whole disobedience thing played to you [Bennett was attacked by Netanyahu for telling an interviewer he would ask to be excused from an order to eject a settler from his home]. And Bibi’s announcing settlement plan after plan.
It’s all words. The same E-1 talk happened last time. If we go visit E-1 today, not one house has been built, not one road.
If someone sad six months ago the election was going to be about who was promising to build more aggressively…
You know, it’s not even about that. I’m not talking about racing, who’s going to build more aggressively. I’m saying simply, you made a big mistake with the Palestinian state. You have to backtrack on it. It was a historical mistake and you have to fix it.
What’s real now about where the society is? The external frame for this area is always the Palestinian issue, two states and the state of talks.
The more I think about it, on the Palestinian issue, the fact that 600,000 people saw [the video], the more I think about it, it’s not that that’s what is convincing them to come. It’s more the fact that we’re willing to address issues flatly in a very practical way, and the same on the haredim, and the same on cost of prices. Where we don’t talk platitudes, we talk down-to-earth solutions. My point is it’s not about the Palestinian state, because really, I’ve done more than 500 parlor meetings and conferences and what I keep on seeing is, I have a very good polling method, which is just to hear what they are interested in. I would say about 80 percent is domestic and 15 to 20 percent is the Palestinian issue, so it’s not the main issue. But what it does is it manifests our way of addressing problems. So I would actually validate the thesis that this election’s not about the Palestinian issue. Everyone’s exhausted and fed up with it. The younger folks, because they’re young, they’re still willing to talk about it. They’ve not spent the past 30 years discussing this unsolvable thing. But anyone who’s 35 and older, screw it, just tell me how I can finish the month without debt, and how I can buy a house one day. Housing prices went up 40 percent in Netanyahu’s term. This is fact. Four-zero percent. You don’t have to fact-check it. I vouch for it. It’ s the Central Bureau of Statistics. It’s ridiculous. And since the big protest, which was about housing initially, the amount of new houses being built dropped 20 percent. It’s amazing. And it’s because of paralysis. It’s because of not enough boldness of the government, because it’s not easy to solve it but you have to solve it.
You say the first nine on your list are veterans of combat units.
That’s a value issue. It’s not a right-wing issue. At all.
On the tour of the West Bank you gave me, 90 percent of your explaining why Israel had to stay there was security reasons.
It’s twofold. I’m telling you. A, it’s ours, it’s always been ours for 3,800 years we have Jewish sovereignty over Judea and Samaria since we first got it, 3800 years ago. But also security. I think another thing folks like is the hi-tech. [He produces a booklet.] You don’t read Hebrew, but it’s called Exit, and it says, insights, mistakes and lessons learned of an Israeli start-up CEO. It’s very popular. I distribute it free over the internet and I’ve had about 60,000 downloads to date.
You’re a man of modern Israel.
I spent most of my career in hi tech, not in politics. You remember I founded my company and all that. It still is my passion. After we solve all the problems in Israel, I’ll…
How do we know you’re human? I have a friend who says the [elite commando unit] Sayerat Matkal guys are part cyborg. He who covers you guys. He says, honestly, ‘We had guy in our unit, there was empathy missing or something’.
[laughing] No. I’m bald, and I’m fat. And I’m human. You can put that on record. I’m okay with that. No, it’s funny, it’s peculiar, the number of Sayeret Matkal guys in politics. It’s almost unheard of in any country, from any group.
It’s a leadership academy, obviously, on some level.
Though it’s not. Most are…
Is it because it’s there’s an action-orientation?
It is very action-orientation. Very detailed orientation. Very detailed. You dive into details, which I believe generally in life helps succeed. I guess on the downside it’s not a very strategic way of thinking. This is just an insight. You have a mission. It’s mission-based thinking, so you have to adapt your mind to think strategically. And the buck stops here way of thinking. In Sayeret Matkal, every soldier can potentially find himself in a situation where the destiny, his specific actions can have profound – I don’t want to go into it…
Sure, for the state.
For the state. Rather than a general or a brigade commander of a different unit. It’s a very self-reliant environment. And you know, it’s tough. It’s endurance. What I’m going through now is endurance. But anyone who goes through a political campaign has to persevere, has to be strong.
(COVER STORY: Jerusalem’s Real Divide)
In the next three weeks, how does it generally unfold. In Israel. Are you guys peaking too early? Is that a danger?
First of all, to some extent, yes. We’ve peaked early. And it is a danger. What happens when you peak early, is you become everyone’s target. I sort of came out of nowhere. People didn’t know who I am, so there’s a discovery phase which is unique to this campaign. Everyone knows who Tzipi Livni is. Everyone knows who Bibi is. Everyone knows who Shelly Yachimovich is. So obviously lots of people are digging and looking and all that. So I assume we’re going to take some hits, it’s the nature of it. But we’re just going to continue. We started with one message the whole time, from eight months ago. The strategy from the primaries is the exact same strategy. We didn’t change our tack. In fact the slogan, ‘Something New is Happening,’ it’s the same slogan in the primaries and the general election. We didn’t even change that. Something new is happening. The key message is values. The key target audience is young and we’re just going to continue. And yeah, we did peak early and I’m pretty worried about that.
Tell me the values, just because I don’t want to assume.
The values means the following: basically two main things. We want to restore Israel’s Jewish and Zionist identity. And B, we want to go into the Knesset as the messengers of all Israelis, whether they’re haredi, whether they’re religious, nonreligious, whether they’re Arabs or Druze. When I wake up as a potential servant of this country, I’m going to think every day about everyone. I’m not going to help a specific sector. And people believe us, because I mean it. I profoundly mean it. When I think about Judea and Samaria, I don’t for a moment think I’m representing them as a sector. They’re not a sector. I live in Ra’anana [an upper-middle class city north of Tel Aviv, in Israel proper]. I need Judea and Samaria and people in Tel Aviv need Judea and Samaria. And people are fed up with special interests and sectorial way of thinking. This is I think what resonates. And the straight talk. Just say what you mean. What we don’t do is daily polls and we don’t have foreign strategic consultants that work in America and send messages. We just say what we believe. We work professionally. We have all the various areas. We’re not suckers. But I think polls need to be used to emphasize things you believe in. But you don’t do a poll to decide what you believe in. And I think some other politicians tend to build their policy based on public opinion. I have my policy. I have my set of beliefs and I’ll use strategy to focus or de-emphasize certain issues, but I believe in what I believe. I mean, supposedly at the beginning of this campaign the Palestinian state issue was nonstarter, but I just think it’s national suicide.
So Bibi’s E-1 announcement and all the rest is just a sectoral response to your campaign?
You have to ask him.
That’s how it looks. It looks like a flanking move. He sees vulnerability on the right.
You know, these elections – this is important – these elections are not about who’s going to be the next prime minister. It’s going to be Netanyahu—I think it’s the first time in Israel’s history that everyone knows who’s going to be the next prime minister. It’s going to be Netanyahu. The single biggest question of this election is who’s going to be the strong man next to him. Is it going to be us, or is it going to be Livni and Yair Lapid? And because of Netanyahu’s nature, it’s going to be very important, this question. Who’s going to be next to him? Imagine him a as a bus driver, holding the steering wheel, who’s going to put his arm and move the wheel to his direction? And that’s what it’s about.
How religious are you?
I’m religious. My wife is from a secular home. The accurate numbers are 43 percent of Bennett voters are non-religious; meaning 57 percent are religious but this is unheard of in our party. That’s almost half. This is amazing.
Do you draw from the ultra-orthodox?
I do. A bit. I’d say one seat. This is a whole different interesting story, but the younger generation: where you’re sitting right now I’ve had many groups of haredim come and the younger generation is fed up and pissed off of how they were maneuvered into the situation where they don’t know English, they barely know math, they’re 23 years old, they don’t want to be stuck in a closed confine, and they see us –but we don’t hate them; and they’re afraid of the hate – they see us as welcoming them, and as a bridge. And I think if we had more time, I think this might be a trend, we might get two or even three seats. Primarily from Shas [the largest ultra-Orthodox party]. Because they don’t want to be poor! And they were sitting here. They said, ‘You know the rabbi said we’re not allowed to have smart phones. Religious law!’ And they all showed me their smart phones, and said like 50 percent of haredi have smart phones, which means I’m talking to them. Let me show you something amazing. You know what a pashkevil is?
A pashkevil is this: One of those things that haredim put on the wall, it’s always loud, it’s always with exclamation marks, this one says, Naftali Bennett, a danger to the haredim. They’re all around Brnei Brak [a large ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv] and all that. What I wrote here is a post, and look how many, 59,000 people saw this post. And what I wrote here is the following:
‘My haredi brothers, you’re wanted.’ Wanted in the positive. We want you. ‘This bill was distributed last Friday shows a very small minority that’s worried. But the majority of the younger haredi generation wants to join. I’m talking to you of tens of thousands of young haredim. The people of Israel want you go join us. We want you as brothers we want you together, as part and parcel of the society’. And then I …talk about what I think is the solution for integrating them into the Israeli mainstream …and I see lots of haredi saw this and responded. So I guess one more salient point in this campaign is taking down barriers between Jews and Arabs, between Arabs and Jews, between haredim and secular, and roaming the country, I actually think that is probably the most interesting aspect of this campaign. Tomorrow I’m going up to the north to Druze villages. And we have massive support up in these villages. And here, just a few days ago I wrote them. These posts are big part of the campaign.
Is anyone else doing this?
Nothing to this extent. Everyone has posts, but usually it’s a press release. And here’s what I write here: ‘Our Druze brothers, you have a home.’ And I write, ‘We all served and fought together with the Druze, and always on Remembrance Day, and God forbid, if a Druze fighter died, we remember him. But afterwards we forget. And after they’re released from the IDF they find themselves with problems Jews don’t have. One is big difficulties building houses because of bureaucratic reasons. And the different one is a big problem of employment, for various reasons. You should know, my Druze brothers, I’m going to fight for you, and all the people on my list. All the people on my list are going to fight of us. It’s in our bones. Just like you fight for all of us. It’s not enough that we fought together in the military, we have to be side by side in civilian life. And just one more thing: Just know that I represent most people in Israel, and we love you.’
Another way to see your campaign is a fulfillment of the national religious aspiration for leadership here, right?
Leadership and bridging. Leadership and becoming a bridge in society. We’re the only folks who learn Torah and serve in the army, so we’re the only ones to can refer to the haredim as brothers and the secular as brothers and understand. Look at my life. I grew up in a Yeshiva high school, learning Torah, then I served in an elite unit, serving as a platoon commander, a company commander. I had 80 soldiers, of which six or seven were [religious] and then I ran a high tech with 130 employees, only about ten were. I married Gilat who comes from a non-religious house, I spend every second or third week at her parents’ home which is non-religious, so I think we’re the perfect bridge to bring down barriers and connect Israel together. I think of all things this is one of the most exciting aspects and one of the reasons people are joining us: they wanted togetherness.