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Israeli politician Naftali Bennett talked about Israel, Iran, and being a light unto the nations. Steve Fox, Fox Photo & Video

Asserting that a “bad deal will have implications for years to come,” Israeli cabinet member Naftali Bennett called for tougher international sanctions on Iran.

Mr. Bennett, who is in the United States to lobby congressional leaders against an impending agreement on Iran’s nuclear energy program – and who spent part of his childhood in Teaneck – addressed a crowd Tuesday night at an event hosted by American Friends of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva at the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

In a wide-ranging talk punctuated by bursts of applause, Mr. Bennett, 41, touched on negotiations with Iran, the Arab spring, Israel’s mission to the world, and the challenges facing the Jewish people.

The head of the newly revived HaBayit HaYehudi party, and Israel’s minister of economy, as well as of religious affairs and diaspora-Israel relations, Mr. Bennett stressed that America is a strong ally of Israel and the conflict over how to handle the negotiations with Iran is merely a disagreement among friends.

Iran doesn’t want a nuclear weapon today, he said, explaining that its goal instead is the capacity to produce nuclear weapons in the future. Any talks should aim to completely dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapon building machine. Otherwise, he fears, Iran will stop production temporarily as a means of easing sanctions and then “at a moment when everyone is distracted, break out and make a nuclear experiment – and the world will have to acknowledge it and live with it.”

Meanwhile, Israel is preparing itself for any outcome, he said, adding, “Israel will do what it has to do to defend itself.”

But in spite of such security fears, Mr. Bennett, who served in an elite Israeli army unit, said that Israel should not be defined by war and conflict. He shared his vision of the Jewish state as “a lighthouse nation,” in the sense of being a light unto the nations. “A lighthouse projects light,” he said. “That’s our mission. We have a strong heritage called the Torah, and we are also building a strong economy.” This lighthouse can radiate its light through advances in technology, medicine and energy for all the world to see, he added.

Mr. Bennett shied away from discussing the Palestinian conflict, but noted that when CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour brought up the issue of the “Israeli occupation” in a recent interview with him, in response he pulled out a 2,000-year-old coin to show her. The words “Freedom of Zion” are inscribed on the coin. He told her that the coin had been found in the old city of Jerusalem, “the same place where Jews were doing business, speaking the same Hebrew I speak, and living in the same place where I live….

“‘You can’t be occupiers of your own home,” he told the crowd, which erupted into applause.

The issue that Mr. Bennett said makes him lose the most sleep is not the security threat to Israel but to what he defined as the internal threat to the Jewish nation, assimilation and a lack of Jewish education. He was shocked to encounter Israelis in his own army unit who had never visited the Kotel and didn’t know who Moses was, he said. America shares a similar problem with Jews who are disconnected from their roots, he added, and he urged the audience to act. “There are kids who are Jewish … but don’t even know they are Jewish,” Mr. Bennett said.

Batsheva Goldberg of Teaneck, who beamed through much of Mr. Bennett’s speech, had reason to be proud. She recalled him, as a child, living across the street; his family called Teaneck’s Sussex Road home many years ago.

“Our families are still very close,” Ms. Goldberg said. “It’s exciting to see that a childhood in Teaneck, education at Yavneh Academy, and belonging to Teaneck’s Jewish community contributed to his tremendous success in business technology and the Israeli political system.

“He’s a very caring passionate man who has already achieved so much for Israel and the Jewish people. We are so proud of him.”