Forward Thinking

For Hipster Naftali Bennett, 'Sorry' Is Hardest Word

By Sigal Samuel

YouTube

“I’m sorry.”

Apparently, those are Naftali Bennett’s two least favorite words.

In a campaign video posted online today, Israel’s far-right Minister of the Economy and leader of the Jewish Home party poses as a hipster equipped with full-on flannel, glasses, beard and a cute little sweater-clad pug. He bumbles around Tel Aviv, apologizing profusely every time somebody wrongs him.

A waitress spills coffee on him? He’s sorry! A driver crashes into his car? He’s sorry! A woman steals the bike he’s about to ride off on? He’s sorry!

Oh, and when Haaretz reprints a New York Times editorial headlined “Israel needs to apologize,” he reads it and says: “They’re right!”

When at last the hipster pulls off his disguise, the newly revealed Bennett looks straight into the camera and proclaims, “Starting today, we stop apologizing. Join the Jewish Home party today.”


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Annexation Was Always Naftali Bennett's Plan A

By Emily L. Hauser

Israel’s Naftali Bennett / Getty Images

On Wednesday, the multi-portfolioed Naftali Bennett – Israel’s Minister of the Economy, Minister of Religious Services, and Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs – sent a letter to his Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

In that letter, according to Israeli Army Radio, Bennett called for a cabinet meeting “to begin the process of imposing Israeli sovereignty on the areas of [the West Bank] that are under Israeli control.” This he called “Plan B,” saying Plan B is necessary because negotiations with the Palestinians have failed – because “the Palestinians have broken new records of extortion and rejectionism.”

Now. It must be acknowledged that this is some phenomenally well-honed and impressively brazen Orwellian doublespeak. Truly.

Because imposing Israeli sovereignty on huge chunks of the West Bank has never been Bennett’s “Plan B.” Unlike Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (who – whatever else his faults – has publicly advocated a two-state solution since 1977), Bennett has never aspired to a two-state peace. Ever. Indeed, one might say that Bennett’s entire political career has been one of rejectionism and extortion. How do I come to this conclusion? By reading his words.

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Israeli 'Semi-Citizenship'? No Thanks!

By Brent E. Sasley

Getty Images

Yesterday in these pages Mira Sucharov explored the concept of qualified Diaspora Jewish citizenship in Israel. She was responding to Naftali Bennett’s floating of the idea (he called it “semi-citizenship”), but she seems open to the notion. However vague, both Bennett and Sucharov meant more than just the ability of ex-pats to vote in “homeland” elections.

Talk about dual loyalty. I cannot think of a worse idea for either Israel or Diaspora Jewish communities.

We Diaspora Jews like to think our connection with Israel is special, outside the normal bounds of host-kin country relationships that mark all other ethno-national communities. (Israeli Jews hardly think of the connection at all.) Our bond, we contend, is of an ancient people committed to a particular piece of territory by history and religion. Jews revived their old sovereignty by dint of blood, sweat and tears — including the blood, sweat and tears of Diaspora Jews who went to Mandatory Palestine and early Israel to volunteer in agricultural work, industry and war. Though the specific nature of our activities vis-à-vis Israel have changed over the years, we still see ourselves as intimately connected to the land and to its (Jewish) people.

But we aren’t special in this regard. Diaspora Armenians, Palestinians and Greeks — to name only a few — feel a similar connection to their mythological-historical homelands and kin networks. If every Diasporic community — most of which, like the Jewish Diaspora, were born in “foreign” lands — is allowed to claim citizenship and participate in the homeland’s politics, there would be no need for separate states. And again, Jews aren’t so special that only they would be considered for such status.

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How Not To Brainstorm the Jewish Future

By Mira Sucharov

Supporters of Naftali Bennett celebrate in Tel Aviv in 2013. / Getty Images

When I heard that the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency were spearheading a three-day “Online Brainstorming Marathon to Plan the Future of the Jewish People,” the international crowdsourcing initiative instantly grabbed my attention.

Partly, it was because I’d heard that Israel’s Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs minister Naftali Bennett has been working with the Jewish Agency to launch a global dialogue that will, I believe, promote a healthy shift: from viewing Diaspora Jews simply as bankrollers of Israel, to seeing how Israel and the Diaspora can help each other in securing their respective and mutual identities. The “Government of Israel and World Jewry Joint Initiative,” which kicked off last November, will see the Israeli government earmark 1.4 billion towards this goal. More recently, Bennett even went so far as to float the idea of granting Diaspora Jews “semi-citizenship.”

The other reason I wanted to join the Jews around the world who have been participating in this online forum for the past three days had to do with something I’d written years ago. In a column about attending a Tel Aviv peace rally, I had puzzled over the question of whether or not participating in such protest marches was my right as a non-citizen. I suggested that perhaps we Diaspora Jews can consider ourselves quasi-citizens of Israel as we engage and wrestle with the Jewish state and its policies.

So I went sleuthing online, where I eventually found the Securing the Jewish Future discussion board. After signing in with my name and photo, I was invited to watch several minute-long, upbeat videos on topics including Israel and peoplehood, Israel on campus, Jewish engagement, experiencing life in Israel, immersive experience, and serving the global good.

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Israel Crowdsources 'Jewish Future' Plan Online

By Nathan Jeffay

Israeli Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett / Getty Images

The Israeli minister with the Diaspora portfolio believes that “what used to work as the Israel-Diaspora relationship doesn’t work,” he told the Forward.

Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett said that Israelis need to start deferring to Diaspora Jews regarding their needs, and the needs of the Israeli-Diaspora relationship. “I live in Israel, I don’t understand the Diaspora perfectly; the Diaspora understands itself much better,” he said.

Israel has traditionally looked at the Diaspora largely as a source of funds and immigrants, but the relationship needs to be more reciprocal, he said. Bennett made his comments ahead of a global online consultation process taking place this week, in which all Jews are being invited to voice their opinions about what provision should be made for the “Jewish future.”

One of the main questions on the table will be how the Israeli government should spend a new $140 million annual budget which it is investing in programming for Diaspora communities, in addition to its existing investment in Birthright trips.

Bennett said that the objective of the funding is to deepen Jewish identity and attachment to Israel in the Diaspora, but “we don’t know how” in Israel. “The process of building a plan is going to be a collaborative process,” he said, going on to add: “The lesson is that we [Israelis] are not the smartest people in the world and we don’t have all the answers here.”

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The Bibi-Bennett Feud Isn't Over

By Nathan Jeffay

The Israeli government has just emerged from a three-day coalition crisis, after public displays of antagonism between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett reached new highs.

A letter firing Bennett had reportedly already been prepared when he cleared the air last night. Netanyahu was furious that Bennett questioned his integrity because he suggested that some settlers could live under Palestinian rule following a peace deal. Netanyahu displayed “moral confusion,” charged an indignant Bennett, who leads the coalition’s most right-wing faction, Jewish Home.

The friction between the two men rose, and yesterday Netanyahu issued Bennett an ultimatum — apologize or leave the coalition. A few hours later, Bennett moved to clear the air and voiced “respect” for Netanyahu’s leadership under “difficult conditions” — though there is confusion over exactly what he said and whether it constituted an apology.

Details aside, the crisis seems to have come to a close, and the two men will go on working together. But for how long?

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Is Jewish Home Overplaying Hand?

By Nathan Jeffay

In Israel over the last few months, the religious-Zionist right wing has been buoyant.

Its political party, Jewish Home, reached an all time low in the 2009 general election, winning just 3 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but then in this year’s election won a remarkable 12 seats. It had finally managed to galvanize the support of the non-Orthodox right wing.

Since the election, as the other big election winner, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, has very quickly ended its honeymoon and seen its support drop, Jewish Home has only got stronger. In recent weeks its strength in the polls peaked at 15 seats. But it seems that the party may have pushed its luck over the last few day

It hoped to be the political star this week. It bitterly criticized the release of Palestinian prisoners yesterday, expressing fury over the move and making disparaging comments about Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, who also serves as Justice Minister. It was very strong stuff given that Jewish Home actually sits in the government that is freeing the prisoners.

And there lies the conundrum of Jewish Home. It sits in the government that is negotiating with the Palestinians even though it objects to everything involved in doing so — giving status to the Palestinian Authority, talking about evacuating settlements, and considering establishing a Palestinian state. Its awkward decision is to participate fully in the coalition, but distance itself from hard decisions related to the Palestinians.

This strategy seemed to be working. The party tried to present itself, during discussions about the prisoner release, as the only faction with the courage to speak out. But it seems that the public didn’t see it like this.

A new poll puts its support at 13-seats, which may be more than its 12 seats in Knesset, but is real dip from previous polling in September. Instead of boosting its support, the attempt to show indignation while remaining in the government has chipped away at its support. This shows the weakness in its balancing act and raises the question: at what point may its obligations to the coalition and to its supporters cause a crisis for the party?

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'Dormant' Arab Peace Plan Gets Annual Tune-up

By J.J. Goldberg

getty images
John Kerry

American and Israeli press outlets (Washington Post/AP, Detroit Free Press, Times of Israel, Arutz Sheva/Israel National News) are carrying unsourced reports that Secretary of State Kerry, currently visiting Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is hoping to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on the basis of the “dormant” Arab Peace Initiative, which is “suddenly” springing back to life.

That would be the Saudi-initiated plan adopted unanimously by the League of Arab States in 2002, and reaffirmed in 2007. It offered Israel full recognition, normalized diplomatic relations and a formal end to the Arab-Israeli conflict in return for a return to the pre-1967 borders and an “just” and “agreed” resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. Kerry reportedly wants to dust off the supposedly long-forgotten plan and introduce certain “sweeteners,” such as better security guarantees and border modifications, to make it more palatable to Israel, which has never formally responded to the offer.

The funny thing is, from the Arab point of view the plan isn’t dormant at all. It turns out the Arab League considers it very much alive and actually has a standing Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee that’s been meeting regularly (2010, 2011, 2012 to discuss the plan and figure out how to get it moving. The committee is meeting today in Doha, Qatar, with the Palestinian Authority’s president Mahmoud Abbas, foreign minister Riyad Malki and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in attendance, to finalize plans for a delegation of foreign ministers that will go to Washington on April 29 to meet with Kerry.

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Behind Coalition Standoff: Likud MKs Can't Face Loss

By J.J. Goldberg

getty images
Benjamin Netanyahu

With Prime Minister Netanyahu just days away from his final deadline to install a new government or lose the option, observers on all sides have their own ways of explaining what’s holding things up. Most of them are correct, but there’s a larger truth that overshadow them all: The Likud hasn’t internalized the fact that it lost the last election, and can’t retain all the goodies in the next coalition that it enjoyed in the last one.

The other explanations are worth reviewing, as they provide the background for Bibi’s current dilemma. One theory is that Bibi stalled until the last minute—that is, until Friday, March 8—before beginning earnest negotiations, in hopes of breaking up the Yair Lapid-Naftali Bennett alliance, bypassing Lapid and bringing in his old ultra-Orthodox Shas allies into a coalition alongside Bennett and Tzipi Livni. Another theory is that Lapid and his chief negotiator, businessman and onetime Ariel Sharon aide Uri Shani, are dragging the current, bare-knuckled negotiations until a minute before midnight—that would be Thursday, March 14—in order to force Bibi to accept their demands.

The bottom line, though, is that the second-tier Likud leaders on Bibi’s bench haven’t yet internalized the fact that they lost the January 22 election and can’t keep what they had in the last election. Accordingly, they’re making it impossible for Bibi to give Lapid what he earned from the voters. Unfortunately for them, Lapid isn’t ready to fold. He’s already given up too much.

Lapid’s reasoning is that he effectively leads a bloc of 33 seats in the 120-member Knesset, including his own Yesh Atid party (19 seats), Bennett’s Jewish Home (12) and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima (2). That makes his bloc larger than Bibi’s 31-seat Likud-Beiteinu bloc (which is not a party but rather an alliance of Likud, with 20, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, with 11). Following that logic, Lapid spent days insisting on receiving two of the four senior ministries in the new government: foreign affairs for himself and finance for Bennett. Bibi would keep the prime ministry for himself and the defense ministry for his number 2 (more on that later).

Bibi couldn’t do that, ostensibly because he had promised to keep the foreign ministry open for Lieberman, who had to resign to face trial on corruption charges but is hoping to return after an acquittal or misdemeanor conviction. In fact, keeping promises has never been Netanyahu’s signature issue, but he had two other, more compelling considerations:

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Poll: New Vote Would Net Lapid 30 Seats, Bibi 22

By J.J. Goldberg

A new opinion poll shows that if Israel were to hold new elections today, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party would win with 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, up from its current 19, putting the former television personality in line to be prime minister, while Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu would drop from 31 seats to 22. Naftali Bennett’s pro-settler Jewish Home party would gain three seats for a total of 15, while the Labor Party would drop two seats to 13. The poll of 510 respondents, released Thursday, was conducted by Panels Ltd. for the Knesset Channel.

A second poll, conducted by Maagar Mochot for Maariv and published Friday, gave Lapid 24 seats and Netanyahu 28. Bennett would rise to 13 and Shas to 12, while Labor would drop to 11 and Kadima would disappear.

Israelis could be forced to return to the ballot box this spring if Netanyahu fails to assemble a coalition by mid-March. President Shimon Peres could forestall new elections by tapping another candidate to try and form a coalition within two weeks after Netanyahu’s deadline runs out, but at present no such coalition seems likely.

At present, new elections are looking more likely than any other option. Since the January 22 elections Netanyahu has managed to sign one coalition deal, with the dovish Tzipi Livni and her six-seat Hatnuah party, promising Livni the Justice Ministry and control of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. To win a 61-seat majority he now needs to sign two of the next four largest parties—either Yesh Atid (with 19 seats), Labor (15), Jewish Home (12) or Shas (11). But under current conditions, any such combination is impossible, because no two parties have indicated any willingness to sit together. Here’s how the breakdown breaks down:

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Naftali Bennett Says 'No' to Bibi (Or Not Yet)

By Nathan Jeffay

The new star of the Israeli right may be heading for the opposition benches. Israeli media are reporting that Naftali Bennett and his religious-Zionist Jewish Home party have rejected an offer that would have made it part of the government with control of the Education Ministry and other prominent positions.

To Bennett’s irritation Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud-Beytenu alliance and convener of the new government, informed them of the offer via the media, so he rejected it via the media.

In addition to the education portfolio the Likud offer would have reportedly given the staunchly pro-settlement Jewish Home a socioeconomic portfolio and a deputy defense minister who would deal with settlements.

This is undoubtedly part of a bargaining game by Netanyahu and Bennett, along with a working through of bad blood that has existed been them since Bennett’s stint as his Chief of Staff, a position he left in 2008.

But it does appear that beneath all the negotiating talk, Bennett truly is unhappy with the offer, which is interesting. In years gone by the National Religious Party, the faction which rebranded to become Jewish Home, was excited at talk of holding the Education Ministry. One of its key priorities was impacting Jewish identity in the state, and it saw the educational realm as an important route for doing this.

The difference is that the NRP was focused on its religious-Zionist ideology and putting it in to action, and wanted the ministries that would best help it to do that. The Bennett Revolution in Jewish Home keeps largest of the ideology, but it’s all about making the party a contender to become the biggest mainstream right-wing faction in the country — he hopes bigger than Likud. Which is why, unlike most of his predecessors he sniffs at the Education Ministry and is desperate for a post where he feels that he can prove his ability to lead the nation. Can he bargain his way to what he considers real power? Well, let’s just say that nobody really believed that the leader of the formerly-niche immigrant party Yisrael Beytenu, Avigdor Liberman, could become Foreign Minister, and he held the position for the last Knesset session.

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Israel's Election Race for Second Place

By Nathan Jeffay

Shelly Yacimovich

So, we all kind of know who is going to take top spot in Tuesday’s general election in Israel — Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud-Yisrael Beytenu alliance. But who is going to come in second spot?

Some Israelis were starting to eulogize the Labor party after its poor performance in the last election in 2009, but buoyed by the social protests it has emerged as a force to be reckoned with this time around. To the relief of the Israeli left, it has looked all through this campaign like one of its parties would come in as the second largest party. But now it doesn’t look so certain.

A Geocartography Institute poll broadcast today on Israeli Radio predicted that Labor will win 16 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but the right-wing Jewish Home will win 17.

In another poll released today on the Knesset Channel, conducted by Panels, Labor gets 16 while Jewish Home wins 14 — but the suggestion that it could be beaten to silver by the previously-sectarian religious-Zionist party will be causing some concern in Labor. Second-place is psychologically very important for Labor — for many in the party it’s a sign that the faction has been restored from the sidelines to its prominent status in the country.

The polls give Likud-Beytenu 32 and 34 seats respectively — a comfortable win, but far less than the alliance originally hoped for.

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Why Bibi Called Vote: 'AIPAC Saw Obama Win'

By J.J. Goldberg

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to call early elections in September followed a “discreet” meeting with leaders of AIPAC, who told him that polls show President Obama heading for reelection in November—so writes Maariv chief diplomatic correspondent Ben Caspit, as reported by Noam Sheizaf on the left-wing, English-language Israeli site 972mag.com blog.

Here’s Caspit, as translated by Sheizaf:

Netanyahu’s surprising announcement on the early primaries in the Likud, which fell on his party’s senior member like thunder on a cloudless day, came three days after a discrete meeting he held with the chiefs of AIPAC, that estimated, based on polls, that Barack Obama would also be the next president.

Bibi knew he can’t campaign when Obama is in his second term. This [would be] a dangerous gamble. Sheizaf goes on to note that the September 4 Knesset elections will come during the Democratic National Convention, which means that “Instead of the U.S. president possibly playing a role—deliberately or not – in the Israeli elections, Netanyahu will get a chance to play a part in the American one.” No, Noam, it’s not a coincidence.

Speaking of Israeli elections, two new political parties are forming on the right:

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