Anshel Pfeffer
Haaretz (Opinion)
January 10, 2013 - 1:00am

Each of the senior politicians called up to the stage at Tuesday's foreign policy debate conducted by the Israel Project at the Hebrew University, scurried up to the podium as their name was called. Only Habayit Hayehudi leader, Naftali Bennett, paused for a moment, turned around, and waved to the audience before stepping up. "It was a short gesture, but there was something about it that distinguished him," a friend who was there told me. "It was just like what a professional American politician would do."

Bennett hasn't just stolen at least a quarter of Likud votes from his old boss, Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister’s former chief of staff is also threatening Netanyahu's unique position as the only Israeli politician of this generation - ever since Abba Eban left the stage - who can think on his feet in English. Both politicians were born in Israel, but Netanyahu spent his formative years in the United States while Bennett was raised in Haifa by parents who had arrived from the U.S., and later lived a few years in New York as a high-tech entrepreneur.

It's not just their almost perfect American accents; both men have dual instincts, they feel equally at home in English- and Hebrew-speaking environments.

Unlike all other Israeli politicians who, however good their English is, have first to translate in their heads what they want to say, here you get Netanyahu and Bennett unfiltered in both languages. Both leaders are using their proficiency before foreign audiences as a selling point in the propaganda broadcasts, but it's much too early to say whether the newcomer is threatening the standing of Israel's primary international spokesman for nearly three decades, since he was appointed ambassador to the UN in 1984.

But Bennett is a rising star in the international media as well as the local press. In recent days, he has given a series of interviews in English to a wide variety of news organizations that unveil interesting aspects of him that have not transpired in his previous Hebrew appearances. It's interesting also to hear what Bennett had to say to interviewers who are not part of the Israeli media milieu. As they are naturally more interested in other subjects, they shift the focus to details normally hidden in the fine print of his platform.

Here are a few revealing quotes taken from three English interviews Bennett gave in recent days, each directed at very different audiences:

In an interview with the Jewish Press, a right-wing American weekly directed at a largely Orthodox and conservative readership, we discover a policy that is no less than revolutionary. Bennett would like to do without the American foreign aid, now worth upwards of $3 billion annually.

"U.S. military aid is roughly 1 percent of Israel's economy," he said, "we need to free ourselves from it." It won’t happen overnight, he stressed. Rather, he would like to gradually wean Israel from the aid - a centerpiece of America's support. "Israel is much stronger, much wealthier," he said, "and we need to be independent."

Even with the American aid aside, Bennett, a former special forces officer, thinks Israel should spend less on defense. While Netanyahu, for his part, cites the unrest in the Arab world as a motivation to bolster Israel’s defenses, Bennett sees it as an opportunity. "We're going to have to cut the defense budget," he announces. "Contrary to what many think, some military threats have actually been reduced. Today's Egyptian army has no offensive capability - it's in dire straits. Syria is in no position to send forces into Israel. We can cut there."

The conservative leader is surprisingly emollient when it comes to American politics. Without mentioning Netanyahu, his words betray hidden criticism of the prime minister's clear preference for the Republican Party. He believes that "it's none of our business in Israel to intervene in American domestic decisions" and, unlike many of his colleagues on the right, he has faith in Barack Obama who "gave us his word most vehemently that he would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon – he said it several times over the past year. He said he has Israel's back. So I hope and trust that President Obama will follow through on these very powerful commitments."

While in media targeting Jewish Americans Bennett exhibits a positive attitude to his parents' homeland, in an interview he gave to the English website of the settlers, Arutz Sheva, whose readership is by and large Anglo immigrants with the right to vote, Bennett uses a term which would be highly offensive to many Jews living in the Diaspora. "We have to be proud of our people," he said, "and stop the galut [exile] mentality." In this interview he stresses his parents’ Aliyah and the "galut" remark is a distinct giveaway. Bennett does not have a very high opinion of Jews who choose to remain in the Diaspora.

In the Arutz Sheva interview Bennett also coined an interesting new term - "Jewish Spring" - which he claims "is sweeping Israel, and that's why secular and religious Israelis are identifying with us and voting for us."

In interviews and appearances to the Israeli media Bennett has been speaking highly of Labor head Shelly Yacimovich, calling her "a woman of truth" and indicating that he would be open to serving alongside her in the next government. It's hard to see it happening, if the English interviews are anything to go by, as Bennett turns out to be an arch-enemy of organized labor, a central tenet of Yacimovich's ideology.

In an interview with Harriet Sherwood, the Jerusalem correspondent of the British daily The Guardian, Bennett said that "if there is one thing I would want to achieve over the next four years, it is to break up the monopolies here and to break the stranglehold the big unions have on the Israeli economy. I think it's a sin that most Israelis can barely [afford to] live here."

Sherwood also asked Bennett the question that is on the mind of Israeli voters – what did he do with the $145 million he pocketed after selling his high-tech company. His answer, though, was a bit disappointing. He didn't spend his money on fast cars and loose women, but on "big spending sprees" of books, "mostly biographies." 


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