Before the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic struck, Israel’s gross domestic product per capita exceeded that of Japan. With 4 percent unemployment and huge growth in the startup sector, the country’s industries were on a clear upward trajectory. But, once COVID-19 arrived in February, Israeli authorities began implementing severe measures to limit the contagion, leading to unprecedented economic malaise. Over the course of a few months, the virus plunged a fifth of the population into joblessness and destroyed an estimated 10,000 businesses.
Against this backdrop, Israel is seeing a shift in the public’s attitude toward the current government. The harsh lockdowns, the inability to provide adequate support for suffering businesses, and the unprecedented rise in unemployment are posing a threat to the viability of the government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite the prime minister’s historic foreign policy successes — and they are indeed considerable — the Israeli public is beginning to look for alternatives to lead the country out of the abyss, as recent polls show.
Naftali Bennett has been a unique feature of the Israeli political scene in many ways. For one, he is the only major Israeli politician with strong roots in the private sector. Bennett was CEO of the successful high-tech firm Soluto, which was sold for more than $100 million in 2013. He has also been intimately involved in several other ventures both in Israel and abroad. He knows of Israel’s innovative prowess from first-hand experience and is aware of the importance of using that innovation as the driving force for Israel’s growth and its forging of relationships internationally.
Bennett has not gone unnoticed by the public. By early August, polls were showing large amounts of support shifting from Netanyahu’s Likud party toward Bennett’s Yamina. According to some of the most recent numbers, Yamina is poised to quadruple its Knesset seats in a future election.
I recently had a chance to interview Bennett and ask him about his experiences in tackling the challenges of the COVID-19 outbreak, first as Israel’s defense minister and later as an opposition leader. He also put forth his vision for Israel’s future in an evolving Middle East and explained how his country can be an asset in the progress and prosperity of the entire region.
Bennett, well known inside Israel for his forthright and vocal conservatism, caught the nation’s attention during his stint heading the country’s Ministry of Defense earlier this year. While there, he led an effort to diminish the spread of the virus, including speaking directly to the public, initiating communication campaigns via social media. Some of his initiatives included the opening of “corona hotels” for quarantining; pushing plans for mass testing; and the self-isolation of elderly and high-risk individuals.
He takes a similarly proactive approach when it comes to Israel’s foreign relations. Bennett sees an evolving Middle East — where Israel and its Arab neighbors share in prosperity — as the region’s “new normal.” “Middle Eastern (and) African nations should know Israel welcomes trade agreements with any country that comes in peace and desires to work with us,” he told me.
Peace does not have to be overly complicated, as the field is wide open for solidifying thriving partnerships in the region. Israel, he said, is a “modern-day oasis in the turbulent and ever-changing Middle East that other countries should be excited to partner with.”
This is conditioned upon nothing other than “goodwill and good faith” between friendly nations, with Israel offering not only its military capabilities but also its economic and humanitarian capabilities too. “Israel, as a nation, has developed numerous medical technologies to combat the coronavirus,” Bennett said. “A positive outcome of the pandemic is that partnerships related to technology and science between Israel and other countries have flourished.”
“While other nations nearby fall and struggle to survive, Israel continues to demonstrate its will to persevere and lead in global markets such as high-tech, military and security, agriculture, and energy,” he added. “Any country that wishes to break bread with Israel will be welcomed with open arms.”