Opinion: The private Naftali Bennett is a different man – Asia Despatch

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But my surprising conversation with Bennett at that time revealed there was more common ground than resentment between Israel’s political left and right. Now that Bennett has become Israel’s new prime minister, that conversation has taken on new meaning — and particularly in the wake of 12 consecutive years of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s reign.

Though Bennett, an Orthodox entrepreneur and leader of the small Yamina party, has positioned himself to the right of Netanyahu and as the would-be leader of religious Zionism, in recent weeks, he has revealed an even greater commitment — to bring solace to Israeli people on all sides of the political spectrum.

In November 2015, I invited Bennett to appear on AJAM in the middle of a round of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians. A rare breed among Israeli politicians, he, like Netanyahu, spoke American English and possessed a keen understanding of the media.

He was a zealous soldier defending Israel on the media battlefield and a shrewd politician building his brand on the international stage. Hence, when offered an opportunity to appear on camera, he didn’t hesitate.

When Bennett and his entourage arrived at the marbled lobby of AJAM on 34th Street, I welcomed and escorted them to the green room, answered a few technical questions and chatted in Hebrew about their New York trip. Once Bennett was done with makeup, he looked up from his phone and asked, “So, what’s your story anyway?”

Israel will remain Netanyahu's even though he is no longer prime minister

I’d been working as a segment producer for a decade by then, and no guest of any nationality has ever asked me that question. It was my job to tease out their talking points while working to break the ice. The icebreaker with most guests was my Israeli accent. “What’s an Israeli journalist doing working for Al Jazeera?” was what every guest wanted to know.

“Do they know you are Israeli?” I was frequently asked, followed by, “How can you work for a network that’s funded by those who want to wipe your country off the map?” and for the brave ones, “Are you comfortable being part of the propaganda machine?”

While I wasn’t getting any editorial instructions or directions from our Qatari headquarters, I was challenged by American pundits and politicians snubbing our interview requests. Every single sitting Israeli politician of any political party and affiliations screened my calls.

Everyone except Bennett.

“Well, um, I came to New York after I graduated from Tel Aviv Uni–” I started with the banal detail, but he was amused, interjecting: “Oh, a Tel Aviv University leftist, I get it…” His trademark half smile appeared. I chuckled with confusion, but instantly felt at ease.

No point in hiding our differences, he signaled. I knew his positions well. Now, my sympathies were clear, too. And, in that moment, he went from being Minister Bennett to just Naftali.

We talked about life away from home, missing family and choosing a career in journalism. I opened up about my personal life, how I met my partner– “an Israeli?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. “In fact, he’s a right-wing capitalist, who grew up Orthodox, served as a combat officer in the IDF and now works on Wall Street,” I said, hinting at the similarities to his own resume.

I mentioned that now, six months after our first son was born, we considered moving back to Israel for the first time, despite our love for New York. We talked about the media and working for AJAM, and then he was called on set.

Once the lights were on Bennett, opposite anchor Antonio Mora, his congenial tone dissolved — and the hawkish, settler-sympathizer came on.

Off-set, I rushed out to thank him and say goodbye to his crew. Bennett was walking fast, preparing for the next media appearance, but he was kind and admitted that the AJAM interview was tough, but fair.

Just before he disappeared behind the revolving glass door, his warmth and friendly voice returned: “Left, right, doesn’t matter,” he exclaimed. “Come back home.”

Finally, he and my mother agreed on something, I thought. And three years later I did come back home.

On June 6, 2021, Bennett gave a dramatic and somber direct statement to Netanyahu: Don’t leave “scorched earth” as you step down. After two years of deadlock, Israelis on the left, right and center of the political map were so fed up with Netanyahu’s deceit and scandals that they were able to see in Bennett what I heard in that conversation — a compassionate man who cares about his country and its people.

Naftali seems genuine. Let’s just hope Prime Minister Bennett doesn’t disappoint.

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