Reviews | Naftali Bennett exit interview

No elected Israeli prime minister has ever served a shorter term than Naftali Bennett. On Monday, after a string of parliamentary defections, he announced he would dissolve parliament and call new elections, the fifth in Israel since 2019, after serving just a year in office. On Tuesday, he WhatsAppd me from Tel Aviv for a phone call about his case.

Length, he suggests, should not be confused with quality.

“In a world where inner polarization becomes almost the greatest challenge, the experiment has succeeded,” he says of his government. By “experience,” he means the most ideologically, ethnically and religiously diverse government in Israel’s history, encompassing Orthodox Jews and conservative Islamists, hip Tel Avivians and former generals, the right nationalist and the left of the peace camp – an example of true diversity and inclusion that critics of Israel rarely acknowledge.

That in itself was a triumph, even if it was short-lived, and even if it was mostly united by a shared hatred of Benjamin Netanyahu. Does Bennett see the former prime minister as a danger to democracy? “Over the past year, we’ve restored decency, honesty, and even respect for commitments,” Bennett says, only ducking the question somewhat. A sober Israeli journalist I know is giving Netanyahu five to one odds to return to power.

Has anything beyond symbolism been accomplished in the past year? A lot, he said. Unemployment is low; economic growth is high (as are house prices); and his government managed to pass a budget – Israel’s first in three years. There is a historic free trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates, signed last month, which is expected to allow 1,000 Israeli companies to set up shop in the United Arab Emirates by the end of the year. There is Israel’s participation in the US-led Middle East Air Defense Alliance, confirmed this week, which signals a further consolidation of ties between the Jewish state and its region.

Is Saudi Arabia part of this alliance? I ask. And has the prime minister met with his Saudi counterparts, including Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, to discuss it? “I can’t elaborate, neither on the first part of the question nor on the second,” he says somewhat revealingly. “I don’t want to hurt things.”

Then there is Iran. Bennett was delighted when the Biden administration refused to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US list of sanctioned foreign terrorist organizations, and he says the fact that Iran did not walk away from the negotiating table is proof of the urgency of an agreement. . He sums up his version of a good deal as follows: “No penalties; no sunset” – that is, the “permanent removal of sanctions” in exchange for “the permanent cessation of development, production and installation of centrifuges” without the sunset clause of the agreement initial nuclear power that would eventually have allowed Iran to resume uranium enrichment at any level.

In the meantime, he said, Tehran is “violating basic requirements” of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has sought to strike Israel directly using unmanned aerial vehicles. The Israeli response, according to reports in The Times, included the destruction of an Iranian drone facility and a military site, and the assassination, in a quiet residential area of ​​Tehran, of a suspected senior Iranian officer. to be part of the Iranian unit 840. , suspected of having perpetrated assassinations and kidnappings abroad.

When the Iranians “hit us by proxy or directly, they will pay the price in Iran”, says Bennett, describing what he calls his “Octopus Doctrine” of hitting Tehran through the head rather than the tentacles. “Turns out these guys are more vulnerable than they look,” he adds sardonically. “The Iranian regime is rotten, corrupt – and incompetent.

Changing the subject, I ask who he wants to see win the war in Ukraine. He avoids answering directly, saying only, “I want to end the war as soon as possible.” He says Israel has taken in nearly 35,000 Ukrainian refugees, about half of whom are Jewish, and was responsible for mediating the creation of a humanitarian corridor from the beleaguered steel mill in Mariupol and the liberation of the mayor of Melitopol, held hostage by the Russians. “If we want to continue to be effective, we have to keep the communication channel open,” he says.

And the Palestinians? “In terms of a political treaty or something to that end, no one is talking about it or thinking about it right now,” he says, instead emphasizing efforts to bring more Palestinians into the labor market. Israeli.

I also ask about last month’s shooting of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the Palestinian town of Jenin, which a Times investigation found was likely fired by Israeli fire, although Palestinian officials refuse to comment. provide the bullet to Israeli investigators. “I don’t know who fired that shot,” he said. “What I know is that the Israeli soldiers did not shoot intentionally.”

What then will be the historic verdict on the Bennett government? Although he insists his “experiment” was a success, he acknowledges that his opponents at both political extremes “found the weakest links and exerted enormous pressure”. But he’s also proud of what he’s been able to accomplish with starkly different coalition partners by simply being willing to “put aside ideological disagreements” and focus on “better education, better jobs, better infrastructure. “.

“We are not trying to decide what God will decide in 1,000 years. We focus on today. It is not the worst epitaph for a government that can still serve as a model, in Israel and beyond.

About Myra R.

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