NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Naftali Bennett talks to ‘Post’ about Iran, condemns violence by settlers – and Palestinians – and his COVID-19 policy.
https://www.jpost.com-By LAHAV HARKOV
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett in his office: Neither Bibi-ism nor Smotrich-ism is the Right. The Right is the love of the land but also the love of our people; and, above all, I am a Jew.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI)
“You know, this is the most important interview for me because my mother will read it,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said to The Jerusalem Post this week.
Bennett reminisced about his childhood home in hilly Haifa, where he and his brothers would have to go up 50 steps to get to street level and bring in the Post for his parents. He broke out in a grin, calling his mother, Myrna Bennett, “a devoted Jerusalem Post reader for years.” And this reporter can confirm that, having met her a couple of times and heard the same from her.
In a lengthy and wide-ranging conversation in the Prime Minister’s Office, with English biographies of people such as Napoleon and former US president Lyndon B. Johnson on the shelves behind him, it was Bennett’s parents whom he repeatedly cited as a guiding light. Their American background strongly ties him to Diaspora Jewry, and their political activism inspired him; his father was a volunteer in Johnson’s anti-poverty Vista program before moving to Israel, and his parents would take him and his brothers to demonstrations against the Oslo Accords and in support of Israelis in Judea and Samaria.
His mother is a source of strength and reassurance at a very challenging time for Bennett. After all, he went from a member in good standing of the Israeli Right, some would even say far Right, to someone whom much of the Right sees as having betrayed them by forming a government with left-wing parties such as Labor and Meretz, and with Ra’am, the first Arab party in an Israeli coalition in decades.
And when he wanted to give an example of ugly attacks on him from the Right, it was a rumor posted in a Likud MK’s WhatsApp group that his mother is not Jewish.
Bennett said his mother is “disgusted with the poisonous rhetoric” coming from some segments of the Right, likening it to the zealots that burned the food storehouses, leading to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
“My mom is very honest with me,” Bennett said. “She really believes in this government…. She always tells me to go with the truth.”
It’s not just his mother. Bennett claimed more and more right-wing people have been quietly telling him that they think this is a good government, but they don’t want to say it out loud for fear of being attacked by others on the Right.
There may be right-wing people whispering to you, but the voices that are commonly heard are against this government. And the antagonism is coming from the Right, and from religious Zionists, the very community in which you grew up and are raising your family. How is that impacting you and your family?
Bibi [opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu] built a huge army of fakes, one of the strongest in the world. It’s a machine made up of bots, real people, paid demonstrators, mixed with real people, fake news all day long, the personal persecution of MKs from my party who are doing great work. It’s a very dangerous machine, because it’s like 1984, presenting lies as truth, and truth as lies. I am convinced that continued actions by the government will overcome it.
On the personal level, I have very thick skin. My whole life, I was taught by my parents to have love for this country, and I don’t take it as something for granted that it is a huge privilege to sit here.
My children don’t feel the same, and they are paying the price. I try to explain it, but it’s hard for them. A kid told my son David in fourth grade “your abba is a traitor,” and I say “no, I was an IDF officer for many years, and I contribute to the country, and I think we’re saving the country.”
I believe we did a big thing, but it’s only the beginning. We need to create, for the next 50 years, an ability for Left and Right, secular and religious, to talk without hate. Former Supreme Court president Miriam Naor just passed away. Minutes after her death was announced, [Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel] Smotrich talked about her negatively, talked in the most inappropriate way, the lowest way.
Smotrich-ism is not the epitome of being right-wing. He took the expression of “religious Zionism” and put it on a party that doesn’t express that ideology. It’s a party that negates other people with other opinions and preferences. It’s a party in which some of its members are arrogant and think that they are always right.
I grew up religious-Zionist and with a crocheted kippah. I was in Sayeret Matkal [the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit], and some were right-wing and some were left-wing, but the Left are our brothers. They served with me and risked their lives. I am not better or worse than a secular person. I have my beliefs. That’s the way, the way of unity. Neither Bibi-ism nor Smotrich-ism is the Right. The Right is the love of the land but also the love of our people; and, above all, I am a Jew.
Lately everyone is talking about a plea deal or not for Netanyahu. Will the coalition fall apart if Netanyahu leaves the political arena? Or in general, what, other than “not Bibi,” is keeping this coalition together?
A feeling of responsibility to put the country back on track. This government, which is very complex, I admit, did a great thing, truly great. We took a country that was in a tailspin of four elections, hours before the way to the fifth and sixth. The country was totally stuck, without a budget. All the systems were disabled. The IDF couldn’t equip itself; there was a loss of control when it came to crime in the Arab sector; we had negative economic growth by 2%. We put the country back to work.
This routine looks standard now, but we moved to 7% economic growth; we stopped the method of national lockdowns; we passed a budget. We are moving to a process, that we haven’t seen for years, of strengthening the IDF, getting the best weapons for our soldiers. We are finally fighting Arab crime aggressively.
Therefore, the central thing connecting us is a sense of responsibility.
It’s no secret. There are people with opinions opposite to mine. I’m a right-wing person. Many in the government – Meretz, Labor, [Defense Minister Benny] Gantz, [Foreign Minister Yair] Lapid – are on the left side. But that’s okay. We have learned that we can disagree and still work together well. As someone who was in a lot of governments, this is the most effective one that I have been in, and I am proud to head it.
In recent weeks Ra’am has been making a lot of problems, and the Left joins them sometimes. It looks like it has been very difficult to maintain a stable coalition lately. Do you think it will last?
Look, it’s really complex. I admit it. We have a mosaic government with eight parties. I find myself mediating between everyone – it’s not easy – and at the same time managing corona and the war against Iran. But the answer is yes.
The burden of proof in this case is on Ra’am. They have Mansour Abbas, the first leader of an Arab party who recognizes Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, who wants to get rid of ultranationalist discourse and only talk about civil matters. As a Zionist, I think all Zionists, Right and Left, have to see an opportunity here. Whether they [Ra’am] withstand the test depends mostly on them, and on all of us. We have to work hard. I think the alternative to return to the days of chaos, paralysis, polarization… is a disaster.
Personally, the step of establishing the government seven months ago was the hardest decision I made in my life, and the bravest for me, even more than commanding [IDF soldiers] in enemy territory. When you’re in enemy territory, you’re risking your life, but you know they’ll appreciate you, and there’s glory. Here, I knew there’s a strong machine of poison and fake run by Bibi that will launch forces against me, will call me a traitor and will hurt my children and family and my friends in the party.
I did it wholeheartedly, because I knew the alternative is the destruction of our home, the State of Israel. I don’t know if Israel would withstand another round [of elections].
I am a person with a deep historic awareness. I know this is the third appearance of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel after the First and Second Temples. We never passed 80 years as an independent and sovereign state. We are 73 years old, and I intend for us to stay here forever. If I contributed to this, I am satisfied
You’re speaking like someone who may not continue in politics for long.
No. I dedicated my life to this. In the Second Lebanon War, I decided I’m going into the political field. I lost trust at the time in the military and political leadership.
I plan to be here for many more years and to fulfill this privilege to be the prime minister of Israel.
If you’re continuing, then in what constellation? At the moment it doesn’t look like you’ll be prime minister if there’s an election.
First of all, I will keep the rotation [with Lapid in 2023] just as we promised.
About the future political constellation, what we see in front of us is the establishment of a new national camp. [“National camp” is a term used for the Israeli Right. – LH] I’m not just the prime minister of Israel, I am the head of new national camp that believes in values and not just one specific person. There’s the “Bibi-ist” bloc, and in my opinion, some them have some lost their connection to the ideology.
I am very proud that I express these stances as prime minister, whether in standing up to the US when they turned to me and pressured me to establish an [American] consulate [for the Palestinians in Jerusalem]. I told the president, I respect you very much, but the State of Israel has only one capital, and it’s Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is the capital of one state, Israel.
The values I bring are expressed in the Golan plan, to double the number of residents there. Look how beautiful it is that we are bringing the Left to support it, which didn’t happen in the past. I stopped the cash flow and suitcases of money to Hamas, and more.
As prime minister of Israel, I am a Jew, an Israeli, a man of the national camp, and I think that in the coming years this camp will grow and we will certainly find ways to grow it.
POLITICAL POLARIZATION is a hot topic in democracies around the world, not only in Israel, and Bennett said that when he was at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in October, many foreign leaders wanted to talk to him about his government.
“Israel is a light unto the nations by having such a diverse coalition, with Left and Right working together harmoniously,” he said.
Overall, Bennett expressed satisfaction at Israel’s international standing. In fact, the president of Senegal called in the middle of the interview – at a time when South Africa is trying to mount a challenge to Israel’s observer status in the African Union.
The Abraham Accords are a great success, and we see that you are building on the ties that were established. Are there other countries on the way?
Yes. I believe strongly in the Abraham Accords. It is a very significant step, and I plan to continue it. I also want to deepen the connection with like-minded Arab states, and I want to add more. I met MBZ [UAE leader Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed] in Abu Dhabi, I met [Egyptian] President [Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi in Sharm e-Sheikh and King Abdullah [of Jordan] in Amman.
Our international standing is flourishing. When I was in Glasgow, at the climate summit, so many leaders came up to me and they only wanted to talk about COVID, cyber and innovation. They were also interested in my personal background, because it is not common for a hi-tech serial entrepreneur to become a head of state.
My point is that Israel is getting out of the frame of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The conflict exists and I don’t deny it. We have to deal with it. But I refuse to define Israel by the conflict.
You mentioned that you don’t want Israel to only be associated with the conflict with the Palestinians. Aren’t the ministers who are going to Ramallah or inviting Palestinian ministers to their homes – like Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who met with Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs head Hussein al-Sheikh on Sunday – taking us back to that?
Look, this government set a diplomatic status quo. It’s OK that left-wing people like Lapid and Gantz support the establishment of a Palestinian state, but my camp opposes it.
I think would be a terrible mistake to create a Palestinian diplomatic entity in our land, but I don’t forbid them to meet. I don’t think it’s right to meet with someone who is persecuting IDF officers in The Hague and transferring money to murderers.
But in the end, I’m not vetoing the meetings, as long as they don’t deal in the diplomatic arena. Lapid and Gantz know this, and they made sure to say that there is no diplomatic conversation in this matter…. To their credit, they always update me and ask for a green light before and then update me after.
Recently, the Americans have been pressuring this government on the topic of violence by settlers and construction plans in Judea and Samaria. On the one hand, you say you want a close, positive relationship with the Biden administration, but at the same time you come from the Right and support the construction. How do you balance that?
My approach with the Americans is one of respect and honesty. I told them we won’t agree on everything; I won’t act behind your backs; I won’t lie to you.
We approved a building plan a few months ago. Will all of our dreams come true? No. But we’re protecting Jerusalem and settlements.
In the diplomatic context in this government, there is the status quo, but I think we are bringing good news on the economic side for Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, but also in Gaza.
I think that at the moment we show [the Americans] respect and talk to them openly. We are healing the damage caused in the last few years when Israel became a partisan issue. We want to be supported by Republicans and Democrats, not just one side. I had meetings with the president and secretary of state. The discussions are very good, and we see the US as our greatest ally.
When Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev said he spoke to an American official about “settler violence,” you came out against painting settlers with a broad brush. But you did not speak out against the recent attacks by Jewish Israelis on Palestinians and their supporters in Huwara and Burin in the last week. Why not?
My stance is clear, as prime minister and always. I totally condemn all violence, certainly by Jews, and beyond that the head of the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] and the IDF chief of staff sat here a month ago and I called on them to use all the tools necessary to put an end to this violence.
At the same time, we have to fight the Palestinian violence that costs human lives, acts of murder, including that of Yehuda Dimentman.
In my view, this violence by Jews, which does not reflect the half million normative Israeli citizens in Judea and Samaria, is shameful, and whoever does it wants to dismantle Israeli statehood. They are saying there is no law and order; we set the law; there is no army or police. That is not why my parents moved to Israel. That’s not why we established a state. We are a state of laws.
I will not allow this to continue. We will act against pockets of lawlessness in the Negev, in Judea and Samaria – everywhere.
THE ONGOING negotiations between world powers and Iran in Vienna are not going the way Israel would like them to. To a certain extent, this was predictable; the Biden administration wants to go back to the 2015 nuclear deal, which Israel views as insufficiently robust, for myriad reasons. But this week, the public learned that the American stance has been so weak that the Vienna delegation’s sanctions expert, Richard Nephew, quit over it.
Bennett speaks about Iran, but, contrary to his predecessor, does not say much about the negotiations or the deal, preferring to keep the disagreements with Washington behind closed doors – even when they are apparent.
When it comes to Iran, things don’t look like they’re advancing the way Israel would like. Do you think your new approach to Iran is really working?
We and the Americans don’t see everything eye to eye.
Iran is the epicenter of the security problems in the Middle East, and certainly for Israel. For decades, the Iranian octopus, with its head in Tehran, is wrapping Israel with its tentacles, whether it’s Hezbollah in the north, Islamic Jihad and to some extent Hamas in Gaza, the militias on the border with Syria. They are striking us. Unfortunately, Israel fell into the trap and fought the octopus’s tentacles tactically. But the octopus itself is Iran.
My doctrine states that in this cold war between Iran and Israel, I won’t allow it to be one-sided. I want to weaken them and hurt their forces in all dimensions.
A deal that will send tens of billions of dollars to this rotten and weak regime will be a mistake because this money will go to terror against IDF soldiers and Americans in the region. When the money enters Iranian coffers, they attack American soldiers… through their proxies.
We think Iran is in a difficult situation. They’re very weak, and we must not give them a tailwind of money, and we relay this message.
But the Israeli strategy doesn’t depend on whether there’s an agreement or not. We will protect ourselves by ourselves. Even if there is an agreement, we’re not committed to it. We will preserve our freedom to act.
What does it mean for Israel if world powers reach a bad deal with Iran?
We are building a strategy that is valid in any case. The campaign has two goals. First is to roll back Iran’s regional influence. They have no business in our region, 1,000 km. from home. I don’t want to see Iran in Syria or on any border of ours. We strengthened the quality and breadth of strikes on Iran in Syria, and their message is “get out.”
The second mission is to keep Iran significantly far from nuclear breakout forever. I stand behind both of these things.
It is no secret that I received a difficult inheritance, to tell the truth. Under the last government, Iran reached the most advanced point [in its nuclear program]. It enriched [uranium to] 60%. It’s incomprehensible. All the redlines set over the years were crossed, and nothing happened. That’s the situation I inherited, but I immediately took care of it. We made a major investment of billions in equipping the military with different tools. We made other investments as well that are relevant so that we only rely on ourselves.
At the same time, we certainly say to our friends in the US and in Europe that Iran is playing poker with a very weak hand, but they’re bluffing…. This is a regime at one of the weakest points since the Islamic Republic was established. The rial is incredibly weak. Swaths of land aren’t receiving tap water in the Isfahan region. There are demonstrations of teachers, judges, pensioners. There is huge disappointment because they promised this government will improve the economy, and it’s even more rotten than before.
The last thing you do to a terror state like this is to give them tens of billions of dollars. You should do the opposite; you have to weaken them, set a dilemma between the continued pursuit of nuclear weapons or the regime itself.
Either way, we built a strategy and are acting according to it.
THE WESTERN WALL has been an ongoing source of friction between Israel’s leadership and certain segments of Diaspora Jewry for years. The section for egalitarian prayer, known as Ezrat Israel, is small and underdeveloped.
Bennett played a key role in coming up with a compromise between the government and non-Orthodox leaders approved in 2016, but it has never been fully implemented. Plus, in 2018, a boulder fell out of the wall and was never fully removed, preventing worshipers from being within touching distance of the wall.
Advocates for the egalitarian section of the Kotel hoped that this government, which does not have any haredi parties in it, would finally be able to put the plan into action, but that has yet to happen. Instead, recent reports have indicated that the government will clear the boulder and make other physical improvements, without enacting other parts of the Kotel compromise, such as creating a joint committee with the Conservative and Reform movements to manage it.
In addition, a recent cabinet decision allocating NIS 110 million to improvements for the Western Wall did not earmark any funds for the Southern Wall, where the egalitarian site is located.
Why is there no progress on the egalitarian section of the Western Wall?
Look, I established Ezrat Israel. There are moves to upgrade it.
Controversial topics – and this is a controversial topic in this coalition – we knew in advance that we cannot advance everything.
Who opposes it?
Some in my own party and not only there. Therefore, we will only act with consensus.
If it can’t happen in this coalition, it seems like it’ll never happen.
First of all, a lot is happening. Ezrat Israel is open, and whoever wants to come and pray can do so. We are in a process of upgrading and enlarging and creating an even more respectable section.
This government is meant to save the country and bring it back to function. It cannot fulfill everyone’s wishes. It’s the 70-70 government; 70% of the nation agrees on 70% of the topics, and those are the areas that weren’t taken care of.
We didn’t build enough in recent years, so the housing prices spiked – we’re taking care of it. No one was fighting Arab crime, which hurt the Arabs and the country, and we’re taking care of it. Fast public transportation, the metro that we finally approved and budgeted – it’s unbelievable that in Tel Aviv public transport hadn’t advanced for 100 years.
We’re taking care of Israel’s security. In Gaza, we have a very tough policy against even one balloon [launched into Israel], and therefore we have relative quiet when it comes to rockets.
But not all of our dreams will come true in this government.
It’s no secret that I have a special closeness and caring about Diaspora Jewry, especially American Jewry, as someone whose parents grew up as Jews in the US who were unaffiliated. I want Diaspora Jews to continue their efforts to feel that they have a home here in Israel. Even if there are disagreements, it’s okay, but we need to keep up communication with them.
Last week there was the terrible hostage incident in Texas, and in general, a lot of antisemitic incidents in recent years. What do you think is Israel’s job in combating antisemitism around the world?
We have to be strong and to speak up. I see that there is a strong Israel, so first of all every Jew in the world should know, in the back of his head, that we’ve got his back.
But we also have to speak up. I spoke with the rabbi [Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, who was held hostage], a very special person, as well as the governor [of Texas, Greg Abbott]. In every event like this we have to be there and help where we can. After the [shooting in Pittsburgh], I came; after difficult events in Miami [when a building collapsed], even if not just antisemitism, we are here. For many, many years Jews were on their own, and today there is a state.
At the same time, I also expect Diaspora Jews to have our back. When Israel is attacked unfairly, many times antisemitism is disguised as anti-Israel – I’m not talking about legitimate criticism, I’m talking about double standards – I expect them to stand up and fight for us.
My approach in this chair has two functions. I’m prime minister of all Israeli citizens, Jews and non-Jews, but I also see my job as the head of the Jewish nation, because today, the largest concentration of Jews is once again in the Land of Israel, which wasn’t true for 2,500 years. Even in the Second Temple period, the largest concentration was in the United States of the time, Babylonia. We’re back, but it gives us a special responsibility. When a Jew is hurt anywhere in the world, it pains me. I feel the pain.
WHEN HE was in the opposition in 2020, Bennett wrote a book in Hebrew titled How to Defeat the Pandemic. Now, the opposition says that he is foundering, allowing too many Israelis to be infected with COVID-19.
Bennett’s argument is that Netanyahu’s plan was based on lockdowns – Netanyahu himself compared his approach to an accordion that opens and shuts – but that a more nimble and adaptive approach will be better at protecting Israelis from the coronavirus while keeping the economy growing.
It looks like we’re removing all the COVID-19 limitations.
Not at all. There are hundreds of actions that we’re taking. We have one of the highest rates of testing in the world, which cuts chains of infection. We are the best in the world at protecting the elderly with our Magen Avot program. Every Israeli should be proud of how we protect the elderly. We were the first in the world to bring the Pfizer medicines against corona, and are using them to protect ourselves. We are checking sewage; we have vaccine operations. We were the first to vaccinate with the third dose in the world and now the fourth, with a proven high level of protection.
We are doing a lot to protect the health of the citizens of Israel, while allowing the economy to continue. The approach of the previous government was to run to shutdowns. There were three lockdowns, and they didn’t succeed, because 6,500 people died, the public couldn’t withstand it, it shattered the economy and businesses, kids were at home for almost 200 days, people spent the holidays alone.
With me, we celebrated the holidays together and we opened the school year. I am leading an Israeli model that is rational and sane. It doesn’t say there is no problem, let’s open everything, but we’re not running to lockdowns. It’s a model that is examining the information as it is.
When it comes to Omicron, we took a very important step. We were the first in the world to close the skies. That bought an advantage of four weeks to see what’s happening in Europe and to learn from others. We saw that Omicron is very contagious but less dangerous – though it’s still dangerous.
Therefore, I built a strategy around it. I believe in what we’re doing. It’s not easy. We have a tsunami here just like the rest of the world, but this determination and system of management brought us 7% economic growth and reduced unemployment by 2%. We brought 100,000 people back to work.
We did all of these things in a once-in-a-century crisis. I think many countries look at Israel as an example. I’m in touch with leaders of other countries on WhatsApp, and they ask what we’re doing.
Why are we canceling so many of the restrictions – no more isolation for schoolchildren, talk of canceling the Green Pass for vaccinated people – if our numbers are so high now? What’s the logic behind it?
We’re actively making moves. With the number of people with COVID-19 now, it’s hard to keep track of who is exposed, which led schools to be de facto closed, and it [the de facto closure of schools] didn’t help, because there is a delay in finding out who is exposed or not.
We are doing something smarter: Test and learn. Every student in Israel, from birth to 12th grade, will be tested twice a week, and we will reveal many thousands who are positive and they will stay home. But we are bringing most of the others back to school. We need to balance, on the one hand, the rate of infection, which is high and means the effective closure of large parts of the economy, and emotional, mental damage to the children of Israel. We are seeing eating disorder depression at levels we never saw before. We need to balance. I think my approach is balanced and rational and is succeeding.
The approach also demands responsibility from the public to vaccinate, to wear masks. We brought, perhaps better than any other country, the vaccines, the medicines, everything. We have great health funds. In the end, there is no replacement for the personal responsibility of every citizen. I can’t close the country because of some citizens who won’t vaccinate. They are taking a risk, but I can’t lock down the other millions because of them.
What are you doing to encourage these people to get vaccinated at this point? Doesn’t canceling the Green Pass have the opposite effect, if there are no limits on them?
We are continuing our campaign. The Green Pass still exists. Its cancellation has not reached my desk yet. Everything to do with Iran, the US, security and Omicron goes to my desk. I will discuss it when the time arrives.
It’s a very difficult effort to keep an open economy and protect public safety. It’s much easier for me to press the lockdown button. Each lockdown costs NIS 60 billion, which comes at the expense of our children’s health. We won’t have that money to protect our kids in the army with the best ammunition. It’s just burning our money to send people on unpaid leave for a year. I don’t believe in this path. It’s easy, but it’s lazy, and I believe in the active way that is harder.•