The Settlers Are Naftali Bennett's Biggest Challenge | Opinion

Just days before he left his position as executive director of the YESHA Council, Naftali Bennett visited the Israeli town of Efrat, located just 10 minutes south of Jerusalem in what is commonly referred to as the West Bank. While touring this section of Gush Etzion, we presented to him the constructive and growing relationships that we Israelis enjoy with the surrounding Palestinian villages. We spoke about the ways in which we collaborate with our neighbors, which helped explain why Efrat has no need for, and is therefore not surrounded by, a security fence. Bennett was enthusiastic about what he saw and expressed interest in encouraging others to visit our town and to present it as a model for settlements, in terms of leadership and diplomacy.

We now find ourselves almost a decade later with Bennett serving as prime minister, and he will no doubt face endless pressure from home and abroad to lead a peace campaign with the Palestinians. In fact, the international campaign has already begun: President Biden closed his official statement congratulating Bennett on his elevation to the prime ministership by prodding him, "My administration is fully committed to working with the new Israeli government to advance security, stability and peace for Israelis, Palestinians and people throughout the broader region." If anyone thought that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policy of muffling the Palestinian issue might continue indefinitely, Biden was quick to insist that it cannot be kept under the rug.

The new government has been established by Bennett, who hails from the right-wing Yamina party, and Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid of the center-left Yesh Atid party. Unsurprisingly, as the two agree on very little, they have agreed to avoid contentious issues that could expose vulnerabilities in the shaky governing coalition. That may be a prudent strategy, but the political climate is not that cooperative. Just hours after being sworn in as prime minister, Knesset Member Mossi Raz of the left-wing Meretz party, which is part of Bennett's governing coalition, demanded that he "clarify his position on the occupied territories."

It is thus clear that Bennett will have no choice but to present the settler community to the Israeli public and to the international community. Notably, it is a movement that he himself has led and developed over many years.

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - JUNE 13: In coming Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends the first meeting of the new government on June 13, 2021 in Jerusalem, Israel. The new government, a broad coalition of parties with a razor-thin majority, has ended the 12-year prime ministership of Benjamin Netanyahu. Amir Levy/Getty Images

As someone who governs in "the settlements" and who is constantly demonstrating and presenting the realities on the ground, I believe that it is necessary and productive to talk about the Palestinians. The Palestinians are here to stay. Israeli Jews are also here to stay. We are part of each other's daily existence, and it must be recognized that this is simply not going to change.

Importantly, Bennett and Lapid also made the bold gamble of including the Islamist Ra'am party in their governing coalition. The controversial move is consistent with Bennett and Lapid's acceptance of the reality that Arab-Israelis are of course also here to stay and we must therefore find a way forward together. They have decided to make Arab-Israelis legitimate governing partners. They have changed the narrative and removed the fear.

This leads us to Bennett's greatest opportunity, which is to use the bully pulpit of the prime ministership to challenge the misguided and harmful perception that Israeli settlers are an obstacle to peace. Just as this government has challenged the prevailing narrative concerning Arab-Israeli parties serving in the Israeli government, it must similarly challenge the perception of the relationship between settlers and Palestinians.

This will require great courage, but Naftali Bennett is uniquely well-positioned to send that message. He has intimate knowledge of the situation. He is quite familiar with the industrial zones throughout Judea and Samaria, where economic integration of Israelis and Palestinians has decades of history and has yielded remarkable results. He has met tens of thousands of Palestinians who desire the ability to work in Israel. He knows the unique opportunities and obstacles that we both face. He is aware of the freedoms that Palestinians enjoy in regions where they enjoy self-governing.

In short, Bennett must send the bold message that the biggest obstacle to peace is not the settlers. If he succeeds in this task and changes the way the Israeli government and the international community perceive the settlements, both his allies and challengers will breathe sighs of relief. His base will be inspired, and his critics will be silenced. And most important, he will have positioned Israel well to achieve a secure and lasting peace.

Oded Revivi is the mayor of Efrat and has served as the YESHA Council's chief foreign envoy.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.