January 20, 2013

YOU SAY PIG, I SAY APE:

Zionism's New Boss : Under rookie politician Naftali Bennett, religious Zionism is finally becoming Israel's political mainstream (Liel Leibovitz, January 14, 2013, Tablet)

Naftali Bennett's press conference late last month was to the Israeli election cycle what a high-speed car chase is to a middling Hollywood action movie. With the chronicle of Bibi Netanyahu's re-election more or less foretold, Israelis were vying for a shot of adrenaline that would rescue what had otherwise become a bloodless procedural, and Bennett was on hand to deliver.

The chase began on Thursday night, Dec. 20, when Bennett, the young and charismatic head of Habayit Hayehudi--literally, the Jewish Home--a right-of-center religious party soaring in the polls, was interviewed by Nissim Mishal, one of Israel's most revered television journalists. The veteran reporter wasted no time. He grilled Bennett, Netanyahu's one-time chief of staff, about his allegedly strained relationship with his former boss. He called Bennett delusional for believing that it was possible for Israel to continue to object to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the face of mounting international pressure. For the first 15 minutes, they maintained a tense conversation, but nothing out of the ordinary for Israeli TV, where interviews are a contact sport and civility a sign of weakness. But Mishal had an ace up his sleeve.

At some point, his tone grew noticeably quieter. "You're a major in reserve, right?" he asked Bennett, a former officer in one of the army's elite units. Bennett confirmed that this was true. "If," Mishal continued, "you were given an order to evacuate a [Jewish] outpost or settlement, what would you do?"

For a few seconds, the studio was silent. The question, Mishal knew, placed Bennett in a lose-lose scenario: As the former head of the settlers' council, Bennett would be expected to declare that he would never agree to dismantle settlements, but as an ascendant political superstar whose surprising popularity was based on his image as a laid-back moderate, he was obliged to reassure his voters of his fealty to the rule of law.

"If I," Bennett began his reply, but Mishal, impatient, interrupted. Waving his hand, the journalist bellowed: "Don't beat around the bush! No speeches! What would you do?"

Bennett hunched his shoulders, looking at Mishal the way a boxer eyes his opponent just before the first punch is thrown. "Listen," he said, "listen. If I get an order to evacuate a Jew from his home, to expel him, me, personally, my conscience would not let me do it. I'll ask my commander to excuse me, but I won't publicly call on others to refuse an order. I personally can't ..." [...]

His money bought him the freedom to dabble in politics, first as Netanyahu's aide and then as the leader of the settler movement. But politics were a much wider, and much muddier, field than the self-contained environments to which Bennett was accustomed, and his style, in the early days in the public arena, could often be brusque.In September 2010, for example, Bennett, then the head of the Yesha Council, the settlers' umbrella organization, agreed to a televised debate with Ahmed Tibi, the most prominent Israeli-Arab member of Knesset. Tibi is chubby, bespectacled, and quick witted, and he wasted little time calling Bennett and his fellow settlers "colonialists" and "usurpers." "Ahmed Tibi," Bennett said in response, "I'll say it loud and clear: This land was ours long before Islam was even created." He made a few statements along these lines, and then, just to make sure his point was clear, he thundered: "I'll say it again. This land is ours. The land of Israel belongs to the Jews, long before you discovered the holy Quran. So, do me a favor: It's ours." The last word, in Bennett's diction, seemed to have 16 syllables. Tibi, livid, tried to say something, and Bennett interrupted. Tibi urged Bennett to shut up; then, in the heat of discussion, he told Bennett that he considered him, a settler, to be like "a tumor that had to be removed." Bennett fired back quickly. "When you were still climbing trees," he said, "we had here a Jewish state."

The incident generated little attention. The following morning, Walla, a prominent Israeli news site, ran a small article titled "Does the Yesha Council believe that Arabs climb on trees?" It was a dog-bites-man story: Here was Bennett, another hotheaded settler, another zealot, speaking bombastically. To the extent that the press reported on Bennett before the spring of 2012, most stories about him read like this. Some noted that he had served as Netanyahu's chief of staff. Others, that he was the son of Jim and Myrna, Americans who had left San Francisco in 1967 and settled in Haifa. But these were tidbits; the main story was that Bennett, despite all the trimmings, was still a settler ideologue, and most of his public appearances, like the shouting match with Tibi, seemed to confirm that characterization.
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Posted by at January 20, 2013 7:45 AM
  
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