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Op-ed

Bret Stephens: Naftali Bennett’s exit interview | GUEST COMMENTARY

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs a cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, Sunday, June 26, 2022. A week earlier, after a string of parliamentary defections, he announced that he would dissolve Parliament and call new elections, Israel's fifth since 2019, after serving barely a year in office (Ronen Zvulun/Pool via AP)

No elected Israeli prime minister ever had a shorter tenure than Naftali Bennett. Last week, after a string of parliamentary defections, he announced that he would dissolve parliament and call new elections, Israel’s fifth since 2019, after serving barely a year in office. A day later, he WhatsApp-ed me from Tel Aviv for a phone call about his record.

Length, he suggested, should not be mistaken for quality.

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“In a world where domestic polarization is becoming almost the single biggest challenge, the experiment succeeded,” he said of his government. By the “experiment,” 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 nationalist right and the peace-camp left — an example of true diversity and inclusion that Israel’s critics rarely recognize.

That itself was a triumph, even if short-lived, and even if chiefly united by a shared loathing of Benjamin Netanyahu. Does Mr. Bennett consider the former prime minister a danger to democracy? “In the past year we restored decency, honesty and even meeting commitments,” Mr. Bennett said, only somewhat sidestepping the question. A sober-minded Israeli journalist I know gives Mr. Netanyahu 5-1 odds of returning to power.

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Was anything beyond symbolism accomplished over the past year? Quite a lot, Mr. Bennett said. Unemployment is low, economic growth is high (as are housing 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, that is expected to lead to 1,000 Israeli companies setting up shop in the UAE by the end of the year. There is Israel’s participation in the U.S.-led Middle East Air Defense Alliance, confirmed this week, that signals a further consolidation of ties between the Jewish state and its region.

Is Saudi Arabia a part of this alliance? I asked. And has the prime minister met with his Saudi counterparts, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to discuss it? “I cannot elaborate, neither on the former part of the question nor on the latter,” he said a little tellingly. “I don’t want to hurt stuff.”

Then there is Iran. Mr. Bennett was delighted when the Biden administration refused to remove Iran’s Revolutionary Guard from the U.S. list of sanctioned foreign-terrorist organizations, and he said the fact Iran didn’t walk away from the negotiating table is proof of how badly it needs a deal. He summarized his version of a good deal as, “No sanctions; no sunset” — meaning the “permanent removal of sanctions” in exchange for the “permanent stop of centrifuge development, production and installation” without the sunset clause of the original nuclear agreement that would have eventually allowed Iran to resume enriching uranium at pre-agreement levels.

In the meantime, Tehran, he said, is “violating fundamental requirements” of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has sought to strike Israel directly using unmanned aerial vehicles. The Israeli response, according to reporting in The New York Times, has included the destruction of an Iranian drone facility and a military site, and the assassination, in a quiet residential neighborhood of Tehran, of a senior Iranian officer believed to be part of Iran’s Unit 840, suspected to be responsible for carrying out assassinations and abductions abroad.

When Iranians “hit us through proxies or directly, they will pay a price in Iran,” Mr. Bennett said, outlining what he calls his “Octopus doctrine” of striking Tehran at its head rather than its tentacles. “It turns out these guys are more vulnerable than they seem,” he added tauntingly. “The Iranian regime is rotten, corrupt — and incompetent.”

Switching subjects, I asked who he wants to see win the war in Ukraine. He avoided answering directly, saying only, “I want to end the war ASAP.” He said Israel has taken in nearly 35,000 Ukrainian refugees, about half of them Jewish, and that he was responsible for mediating the creation of a humanitarian corridor out of the besieged steel works in Mariupol and the release of the mayor of Melitopol, who had been held hostage by the Russians. “If one wants to continue to be effective you need to keep the communication channel open,” he said.

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

I also asked about last month’s shooting of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the Palestinian city of Jenin, which a Times investigation indicated was probably by Israeli fire, although Palestinian officials refuse to provide Israeli investigators with the bullet. “I do not know who shot that shot,” he says. “What I do know is that Israeli soldiers definitely do not shoot intentionally. Never will Israeli soldiers intentionally target reporters.”

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What, then, will be the historical verdict on Mr. Bennett’s government? Although he insisted his “experiment” was a success, he acknowledged its opponents on both political extremes “found the weakest links and applied tremendous pressure.” But he also prides himself on what he was able to accomplish with radically different coalition partners by simply being willing to “set 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,” he said. Not the worst epitaph for a government that can still serve as a role model, in Israel and beyond.

Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times, where this originally appeared.


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