When Naftali Bennett was appointed last month as Israel’s defense minister, it was seen as a temporary political move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shore up his right-wing flank until a new government could be formed.
Yet with the Jewish state likely headed towards a third election in less than a year, Bennett, who heads the New Right Party, will likely hold the office for several months, and is already making significant changes to the nation’s defense policies in just three weeks on the job.
Since taking office, he has immediately responded to all missile fire from Gaza and Syria; has announced not returning the bodies of terrorists killed in Israel to their families; approved construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in Hebron; and instituted a hardline policy on Iran.
“The Iranian leadership must know that they have no place in Syria, and they should focus their attention on the pressing needs of the Iranian people and not on attacking Israel,” he told JNS.
According to Bennett, who was recently seen visiting an Israeli air-force base carrying a book by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Israel will no longer take a defensive posture in Syria, but will attack and even kill any Iranian presence there in order to force the regime out of the region.
Similarly, Bennett said Israel will respond immediately to rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, even if they land in open areas. “A missile which lands without any damage to Israel is no different than one which hits an Israeli home,” he said. “Anyone who shoots will be hit.”
There have been two attacks from Gaza and two missiles fired from Syria since Bennett became defense minister. No damage in Israel was caused; nonetheless, Bennett ordered the Israel Defense Forces to retaliate against Hamas targets in Gaza and Iranian targets in Syria.
Another new Bennett policy seeks to deter Palestinian attacks against Israelis with the announcement that Israel will not return the bodies of terrorists killed while carrying out terror attacks.
Until now, Israel returned the bodies of terrorists, and their funerals became a basis for further incitement against Israeli and turning the murderers into heroes, inspiring more Palestinians to carry out similar attacks.
Bennett’s hardline policy not to return bodily remains is intended to serve as a deterrent; potential terrorists will know that they won’t be treated as heroes and their bodies will stay in Israeli hands.
Implementing policies aligned with right-wing base
The ascension of Bennett to the job of defense minister has been several years in the making and a remarkable political turnaround for the former Netanyahu protégé.
Bennett, who served as education and diaspora affairs minister until earlier this year, has had his sights set on this position since “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, during which he openly criticized the defense establishment and Netanyahu for not taking a strong enough stance against Hamas.
As former leader of the right-wing national religious Jewish Home Party from 2012-18, Bennett and his political partner, Ayelet Shaked, made a huge gamble and decided to leave the party and form a new one ahead of the April 2019 elections. However, their gamble flopped when the party narrowly failed to cross the threshold to enter the Knesset, leaving them without jobs and an uncertain political future.
Yet thanks to an ongoing election impasse, Bennett and Shaked were given another shot when new elections were called and held in September. Learning from past mistakes, both politicians once again hitched their fortunes to the Jewish Home Party, creating a new temporary right-wing slate called Yamina for the election.
After successfully crossing the threshold in September, Yamina split once again, and Bennett and Shaked now found themselves a key part of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc.
Netanyahu feared that Bennett’s party would lend its support to Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz while he was tasked with trying to form a government. And so, Netanyahu made him an offer: continue to support Netanyahu and serve as Israel’s Minister of Defense, a position that would enable him to act on his strong right-wing ideology.
Implementing policies aligned with right-wing base
Beyond his stances on Iran and Palestinian terrorists, Bennett is also implementing policies aligned with his right-wing base.
On Sunday, he approved the construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in the wholesale market complex of Hebron, which will double the number of Jews living in the city and create a connection of land from the Cave of the Patriarchs to the already existing Avraham Avinu neighborhood.
The plan is to destroy the now-abandoned marker buildings. New stores will be built, and Palestinians will retain rights to the ground floors. But Bennett’s official statement declares that all property above the ground-floor market will be “returned to Jewish hands.”
The move has led to strong condemnation from the Palestinian leadership and the Israeli left.
Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat called on the international community to take “concrete measures, including sanctions against settlements.” Joint Arab List chairman Ayman Odeh called the decision “dangerous,” and Meretz Party Knesset member Tamar Zandberg calling the move “Messianic” and “a victory for [the late Rabbi Meir] Kahane.”
Bennett has made it a point to emphasize that his policies are only to serve as deterrents for terrorists, not the Palestinian people.
As an example, he has proposed a massive new project for the Gaza Strip, which has been under a blockade by Israel and Egypt ever since Hamas took control of it in 2007. While Israel allows hundreds of trucks to bring the most basic humanitarian needs into Gaza on a daily basis, the people living there suffer from a lack of ability to travel and trade with other countries.
Bennett announced support for a plan to build an artificial island off the coast of Gaza and has instructed the IDF to conduct a feasibility study for the project.
The proposal, which seeks to provide civilians in Gaza with humanitarian needs while bolstering Israel’s security needs, involves creating a three-mile causeway from the coastal strip to a three-square-mile island that would house an electricity plant, freight harbor and storage; a desalination plant for clean water; and an international airport.
The hope is that this move will lead to concessions from Hamas, including a possible breakthrough regarding the bodies of two Israeli soldiers currently being held in Gaza.
Previous defense ministers had vetoed the plan, which was created by now Foreign Minister Israel Katz, though Bennett has always supported it as a minister in the security cabinet.
His appointment has enabled Bennett to move forward with the project, to be financed by the international community. It is expected to take five years to build.
Bennett’s success in promoting his right-wing agenda could provide the New Right Party with a boost in the next round of elections with some polls indicating that in certain scenarios, the party could rise into double-digit mandates.