Naftali Bennett – a nationalist, religious prime minister whose Yamina party only won seven seats in the 120-member Knesset – joined forces with left-wing, centrist and other right-wing politicians in 2021 to form a first-of-its-kind coalition that included parties with conflicting worldviews, including an Arab Islamist party, Ra’am.
The move, which ousted Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years in office and followed an unprecedented political crisis that saw four successive national elections in under three years, made Bennett a pariah among much of the right and heralded a ceaseless, fiery campaign against him and his slim-majority power-sharing government with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. Eventually, members of Bennett’s party succumbed to the pressure and toppled the government.
Speaking with author and comedian Hanoch Daum on the condition the interview was published in full – Bennett posted it on his own YouTube with English subtitles – the briefly-tenured former prime minister said he understood the anger and sense of betrayal felt by many of his voters over his decision to break his express promise to not form a government with Lapid and the left.
He said he had genuinely stood behind the promise at the time, but was left with an impossible choice between forming such an “unnatural” government and sending the country to yet another election, extending the severe political crisis and potentially throwing the country “into the abyss”.
Bennett admitted that he had made a mistake in pledging not to sit with Lapid. But he insisted repeatedly that his decision to form the government had been the right one for Israel, and was motivated solely by genuine care for the country and not at all fuelled by personal ambition or a desire to unseat Netanyahu, as the current prime minister and his loyalists repeatedly charge.
“I don’t regret the decision to form the government,” he said.
“It was the fourth round of elections. It was crazy and the economy was collapsing. We had the highest unemployment rate in decades. There was huge deficit, there was COVID, and the disaster that was ‘Guardian of the walls’ [Israel’s 11-day conflict with Hamas in Gaza in May 2021].”
Bennett explained how he negotiated to serve with Netanyahu, but ultimately the Likud bloc did not have the numbers. Rather than see Israel go to elections again, he decided to start negotiating “with the other side of the map”.
“Someone would have to break some promise to be able to form a government,” he said.
“Because if everyone was to stick to their promises, we would be going to a fifth, a sixth, a seventh round.”
The former prime minister also acknowledged that the composition of his government “wasn’t right”, and that the Israeli public was not currently able to accept an Arab party as part of the coalition.
He added that he had made a mistake in including only predominantly Ashkenazi-led Jewish parties and not other elements of society. The latter, he said, sidelined the socio-economically weaker Sephardi population and played into the image of joining forces with the social elite and ousting the marginalised community’s leader, Netanyahu.
“I had set up a coalition with Labour, Meretz, Yesh Atid – seen as secular Ashkenazi … It’s not just that I ousted Netanyahu; from this point of view, I joined forces with those who had repressed them all these years, and booted the man who had defended them,” Bennett said.
“Netanyahu is long since not a man but a figurehead; like the Star of David, or the menorah, a symbol of the state … and I had ‘joined forces with the elite’.”
Another mistake he made was neglecting to consolidate support for his government within his own party, which ultimately saw MKs breaking ranks and causing its downfall.
“There were several errors; one of them was lacking involvement in the political aspect,” he said.
Bennett also admitted that he had underestimated the effectiveness of the “poison machine” directed against him and his government, adding that such a campaign has also been directed against Netanyahu since he first assumed a leadership role in the 1990s.
The Netanyahu-led opposition, Bennett charged, had broken the unwritten rules of the game and taken action that “simply isn’t done” – like voting against crucial pieces of legislation that it ideologically supports, such as the periodic extension of emergency regulations defining Israel’s military rule over the West Bank.
In contrast, he claimed, Bennett made a point of showing Netanyahu respect. As an example, he said he had offered the Likud leader the prime minister’s chair during their handover meeting, even though he was no longer PM, a day after Bennett assumed power.
Bennett said Netanyahu had withheld much information from him during the handover meeting, which famously lasted only 20 minutes. He said there was much material he needed to find elsewhere through tedious work and from other officials.
Recounting his actions as prime minister on the international stage, Bennett detailed what he said were concessions by Russian and Ukrainian leaders during his mediation on Russia’s invasion, saying Vladimir Putin had promised him he would not assassinate his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, while the latter had backed down from joining NATO.
“I knew that Zelensky was under threat,” Bennett said, describing a meeting with Putin in Moscow early on in the war.
“He was in a secret bunker. So three to four hours into the meeting, I asked … ‘Are you going to kill Zelensky?’ He [Putin] said, ‘I won’t kill Zelensky.’
“Then I said, ‘I have to understand you’re giving your word that you won’t kill Zelensky.’ [He said] ‘I won’t kill Zelensky.’
“I call Zelensky and say, ‘I came out of a meeting. He’s not going to kill you.’ He asks, ‘Are you sure?’ [I said,] ‘100 per cent, he won’t kill you.’”
Bennett added, “I knew that the trust I had formed with Putin was a rare commodity. America didn’t know how to communicate at that time, neither does it know today. I don’t think there was anyone else that had the trust of both sides.”
Bennett also hinted that he had preserved Israel’s freedom to take military action against Iran’s nuclear program without prior coordination with the United States.
During a meeting with US President Joe Biden in Washington, Bennett said, the president had asked him “to promise me that you’ll update me on any action you take in Iran … And I answered: ‘Mr. President, there are going to be times when you’re not going to want to know about things, but generally speaking, I’ll keep you in the picture on the broad strokes of things.’”
Biden “completely understood” what he meant, Bennett said.
Speaking of the current hardline Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul plans that critics say would undermine Israel’s democratic foundations and the intense opposition to them, Bennett expressed concern at the loss of dialogue over key matters.
“People are afraid of this. There is a real fear that the country is lost,” Bennett said, adding that he worried that “people will stop sending their children to [IDF] combat units” in protest.
“A broad solution must be found for the State of Israel,” he said.
“I’m very concerned and I’m usually very optimistic. Because no one’s listening,” he said.
“I also hear there could be macro-economic ramifications, [there are] many dynamics in terms of investments, not knowing what Israel’s future will be. It could reflect on the Abraham Accords.
“I don’t want us to be apocalyptic, I want us to solve the problems.”
Giving a piece of advice to the leaders of the current government, Bennett urged them “not to act power-drunk” since that would “backfire,” quoting Winston Churchill who said: “In defeat, defiance, in victory, magnanimity.”
“Be magnanimous. The members of the left aren’t enemies. They’re our people, our brothers. Don’t trample anyone, don’t be spiteful. What do you achieve by doing that? Do you want the high-tech [sector] and scientists to flee overseas?”
And turning to the country’s religious shift under the current government, he added, “If anyone thinks that Judaism is becoming stronger because of the laws and administrations and letting [far-right religious Noam party leader] Avi Maoz be in charge of external programs in the education ministry, it’s just the opposite.”
Bennett said that despite the events of the past few years, he retains the same views, although his priorities have changed.
“My emphasis today is unity, more moderation, and proactiveness. Lots of action, less talk,” he said.
He said he harbours no animosity toward Netanyahu, although he no longer admires him as he did in the past.
While not saying so directly, Bennett gave the distinct impression that he intended to return to the political sphere in the future.
Asked at the end of the interview to comment on Israel’s positives, he said, “This country is incredible. It’s a miracle.
“Israel is a technology, biotechnology, pharmaceutical superpower, AI on a global scope, and a huge source of pride. We take water from the Mediterranean Sea, desalinate it, generate water, and it flows into Lake Kinneret.
“We supply water and food to countries in the region, we supply technology, a future.”
Bennett said Israel and the Jewish people have “thousands of years of tradition in terms of the importance of education, thinking and questioning”.
“This nation is truly a family with strengths unlike any other,” he added.
“And today the world needs Israel more than ever to help solve global problems such as global warming. Bill Gates said this to me: ‘Global warming can’t be changed by new habits, less use of disposables. No, we need a technology that hasn’t been invented yet. And you’re the prime minister of Israel, go invent it.’ The world expects us to invent the technologies that will save this world.
“There’s a crisis in Ukraine? Yes, the little State of Israel will try to assist. We’ll be the first to set up a field hospital, the prime minister will try to mediate.
“There’s the global issue of social media that’s driving everyone crazy? Let’s solve this problem for the world. There’s a global water issue? We’re the world capital of water production and water usage.
“The little State of Israel can be a light unto the nations,” he concluded. “First it needs two basic things … Security vis à vis the enemies and unity within.
“Let’s be a spectrum from ultra-Orthodox to secular, but let’s get along with one another. Then we can really manifest the wondrous strengths in this country.”
With Times of Israel
Michael Bachner contributed to this report.
Naftali Bennett will feature at UIA NSW’s General Division and Young Leadership events on Sunday, February 26. Bookings: uiaaustralia.org.au
He will also appear at UIA Victoria’s General Division and Young Leadership events on Tuesday, February 28 (SOLD OUT).