Naftali Bennett, the star of the Israeli right, is nothing if not brash and confident. His cockiness shone through at a New York appearance last night. He bragged about his “landslide” HaBayit HaYehudi primary victory, about how he sold his tech companies for millions of dollars and why he’s Israel’s “innovation czar.”
He had plenty of reasons to act that way at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. The audience clapped at every opportunity as his perfect English was aired throughout the event space (which was hardly sold out). The only signs of dissent were a handful of young Jewish protesters who stood outside, and who were mocked by Bennett at several turns. And his interlocutor, neoconservative Dan Senor, was a decidedly friendly host, mostly throwing softballs at Bennett, who was blunt about the peace process and subtly racist about the larger Middle East.
Bennett’s appearance at a key Jewish cultural institution on Manhattan’s Upper East Side largely repeated the typical tropes of Israel advocacy. The conversation with Senor ran the gamut of Israeli politics: the role of the Haredim and Palestinian citizens of Israel; the high-tech economy; the Arab Spring; the peace process; and Israeli public relations. It took about 40 minutes of banter before Bennett, the head of the religious nationalist HaBayit HaYehudi party, and former Mitt Romney spokesman Senor got to the main event: Iran.
Senor asked Bennett about the West’s argument that failure in Geneva could lead to a path where the only two options are an Iranian nuclear weapon and an Israeli or American bombing campaign. Bennett, echoing his boss Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said that a “bad deal will lead to war.” It was a message Bennett had been hammering home on his jaunt to the U.S. He has met with Congressional officials to persuade them to pressure the Obama administration away from what looks to be coming down the pike: a first-step agreement on Iran’s nuclear energy program. At the same time, he emphasized that the Obama administration was a strong friend of Israel.
Bennett admitted that Iran doesn’t want a nuclear weapon today. But he said they want one tomorrow. In other words, Bennett was arguing that Iran wants the capability to produce a weapon, and that the talks in Geneva should seek to prevent the country from reaching that capability. His pitch was that it was the time to ratchet up sanctions to increase American leverage at the negotiating table.
The talk came three days before negotiations with Iran that could lead to an agreement kick off again in Geneva.
Bennett also didn’t shy away from conjuring up worst-case scenarios when it came to Iran.
“These are very fateful days,” Bennett told the crowd. “If a decade from now, God forbid, a nuclear suitcase blows up in an American city, we will be able to trace it back to these days…If a nuclear missile hits Rome or Paris or Tel Aviv five years from now, it will be because of these days.”
He also called Iran the world’s biggest exporter of terrorism. “We’re not talking about Switzerland,” said Bennett. “These guys aren’t dancing ballet. These are terrorists operating over five continents, 24 states, and supporting terror from Kazakhstan to Thailand to Israel…It’s not some beautiful state.”
The talk began with Senor asking Bennett about his personal path from New York City-resident and tech mogul to commando in an elite Israeli unit. Before long, Bennett turned to typical Israeli hasbara. The Arab Spring is turning into a “Muslim winter.” And Israel is not just about the conflict. It’s the “lighthouse nation,” he repeatedly said. It’s also the “cucumber nation,” repeating a line that he has used before. It’s a reference to how Israeli agricultural techniques have helped India’s cucumber crop. He added that if Israel builds “500 water centers in Africa, Africa won’t be talking to us about the conflict.” Bennett also praised Senor for writing the book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. The crowd applauded loudly for Senor.
Despite the ongoing negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, Bennett was sour on the prospects for peace. He questioned whether an agreement could be sustainable without buy-in from Gaza. “Do we have to give up all of Judea and Samaria, and then we’re left with one-and-a-half million who say, ‘we’re not part of the deal, we still want to kill you.’ It doesn’t seem to me good business to do that.”
The right-wing politician also dismissed those who refer to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank by pulling out a coin–supposedly from the year 66—that referenced “Zion.” “Can I ‘occupy’ my own home?” Bennett asked, before pushing for his plan to annex Area C of the West Bank and give citizenship to 70,000 Palestinians, which he said would not threaten Israel’s Jewish demographic majority.
He closed out the night by saying things like, “in this region, nice songs are not really appreciated,” before launching into a discussion of why Israel’s future is so bright. “I think Israel is exactly heading in the right direction,” a message that put Bennett’s contradictory messages–Israel faces peril, but Israel is a “lighthouse” spreading its technology around the world–on full display.
Meanwhile, about a dozen young Jewish protesters from the All That’s Left collective stood outside the talk with protest signs and engaged in arguments with audience members as they filtered out of the 92nd Street Y. The protesters from All That’s Left, an anti-occupation activist group formed in Israel, held up model settlements with inflammatory Bennett quotes painted on them.
“Naftali Bennett doesn’t speak for me,” All That’s Left member Dana Mandler told me. “He speaks the language of violence and racism.”