An Hour with Naftali Bennett: Is the Right-Wing Newcomer the New Face of Israel?

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image: Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, poses for a portrait at his office in the central Israel city of Petah Tikva, Jan. 10, 2013.
Oded Balilty / AP for TIME

Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, poses for a portrait at his office in the central Israel city of Petah Tikva, Jan. 10, 2013.

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.

(MORE: Psychological Warfare with Missiles: Why Tel Aviv Matters)

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.

MORE: Netanyahu’s Big Gamble: The Risks of Throwing In with Lieberman

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