Naftali Bennett, Point Man On Iran, Says He Finds Sympathetic Ear In Congress


While the Obama administration has been “a huge friend” to Israel, with “unprecedented cooperation on security and intelligence” issues, “at the end of the day Israel can’t outsource its security,” Naftali Bennett, a key member of the Israeli cabinet, told The Jewish Week in an exclusive interview here this week.

“We’ll never depend on anyone” who tells Israel, “‘We have your back,’ we will never rely on others to protect us,” he said. “We’re the ones who live in the neighborhood.”

After the hour-long meeting, it seemed clear why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose Bennett to take on the critical role this past week of coming to Washington to lobby Congress against a “bad deal” with Iran on its nuclear program.

With Israel being pressured heavily now by the U.S. on two key fronts — the West’s negotiations with Tehran and the Israel-Palestinian peace talks — there is a growing sense of a dangerous showdown at hand between the two key allies, though Bennett described it as “a disagreement … on tactics … between friends.”

The Obama administration, chiefly through Secretary of State Kerry, is voicing its open frustration, if not anger, at the Netanyahu government for its perceived obstructionist stance on both the Iran and Palestinian issues; Jerusalem, however, is insisting it will not be bullied, even by its closest and most important friend, into jeopardizing its security.

Enter Bennett, 41, leader of the energized right-wing Jewish Home party and minister of trade, labor and industry as well as of religious affairs and diaspora-Israel relations. Of particular note he is a fresh face in the U.S. whose personal charm, political smarts, venture capital success, mastery of English (his parents made aliyah from San Francisco), and ability to make tough statements with a soft touch, made him a solid choice to meet with key members of Congress during two days of intensive talks in Washington and with members of the press there and in New York.

A relaxed and smiling Bennett, visiting the Times Square offices of The Jewish Week, said it was “an extraordinary week” and that he received “very positive” responses from Democrats, and especially Republicans, to his call for Congress to “ratchet up the pressure” on Iran through economic sanctions.

That message counters the U.S. insistence that the sanctions should be eased somewhat in return for Iran suspending its nuclear program for six months to allow deeper talks to continue in the hopes of avoiding a military confrontation.

Indeed, Kerry was reported to have told senators not to listen to Israel on this issue. But Bennett compared the U.S. stance to a boxing referee stopping his count at eight, just when a fallen boxer was about to be counted out.

The only reason Iran had agreed to talk with the West was because of the success of the international sanctions, which has deeply hurt Tehran’s economy, Bennett said. Why ease the pressure when Iran refuses to dismantle any of its centrifuges or its plutonium reactor? He said the Iranians are “smart,” and want the ability, even after halting its program, to be able to “get back to where they are” within three weeks.

Acknowledging that the Israeli government “was very surprised at the magnitude of the proposed sanctions relief” and the minimal concessions in terms of Iran halting nuclear production, Bennett expressed concern that an easing of the economic sanctions would prompt a number of countries to resume doing business with Iran, ending the financial stranglehold.

Echoing Netanyahu, he said that while the U.S. and Israel share the same goal of preventing Iran from having nuclear arms, no deal is better than a bad deal.

Some U.S. analysts compare recently elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who, succeeding the old Communist guard in the 1980s, was prepared to negotiate with President Reagan on reducing nuclear arms.

Opponents of the proposed deal with Iran assert, though, that Gorbachev eased his stance only when President Ronald Reagan increased rather than eased pressure on the Soviets regarding economic sanctions and human rights issues after the Reykjavik summit.