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Opinion | Naftali Bennett exit interview

by YAR

No elected Israeli prime minister has ever had a shorter term than Naftali Bennett. On Monday, after a series of parliamentary defections, he announced that he would dissolve Parliament and call new elections, the fifth in Israel since 2019, after just one year in office. On Tuesday, he sent me a WhatsApp message from Tel Aviv for a phone call about his history.

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

“In a world where internal polarization is becoming almost the biggest challenge, the experiment was successful,” he says of his government. By “experiment,” he means the most ideologically, ethnically, and religiously diverse government in Israel’s history, including Orthodox Jews and conservative Islamists, Tel Avivians and former generals, the nationalist right, and the left of the Israeli camp. peace: an example of true diversity. and inclusiveness that Israel’s critics rarely acknowledge.

That in itself was a triumph, albeit a short-lived one, and even if it was united primarily by a shared hatred of Benjamin Netanyahu. Does Bennett consider the former prime minister to be a danger to democracy? “Last year we restored decency, honesty and even honoring commitments,” Bennett says, dodging the question a bit. One sober-minded Israeli journalist I know gives Netanyahu a five-to-one chance of returning to power.

Has anything beyond symbolism been achieved over the past year? Enough, she says. 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 landmark free trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates, signed last month, which is expected to see 1,000 Israeli companies set up 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 Mohammed bin Salman, to discuss it? “I can’t give more details, neither about the first part of the question nor about the last one”, he says a bit revealingly. “I don’t want to hurt things.”

Then there is Iran. Bennett was pleased when the Biden administration refused to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US list of sanctioned foreign terrorist organizations, and says the fact that Iran did not leave the negotiating table is proof of how much you need an agreement. . He sums up his version of a good deal like this: “No penalties; non-expiration,” that is, the “permanent removal of sanctions” in exchange for the “permanent halt to the development, production, and installation of centrifuges” without the original nuclear deal’s sunset clause that would have eventually allowed Iran to resume nuclear deal. uranium enrichment at any level.

Meanwhile, Tehran, he says, is “in violation of the fundamental requirements” of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has tried to attack Israel directly using unmanned aerial vehicles. The Israeli response, The Times reports, has included the destruction of an Iranian drone facility and military site, and the assassination, in a quiet residential neighborhood of Tehran, of a senior Iranian officer believed to be part of the Unity. 840 from Iran. , suspected of being responsible for carrying out murders and kidnappings abroad.

When the Iranians “hit us through proxies or directly, they will pay a price in Iran,” says Bennett, describing what he calls his “octopus doctrine” of hitting Tehran on the head rather than the tentacles. “It turns out these guys are more vulnerable than they look,” he adds mockingly. “The Iranian regime is rotten, corrupt and incompetent.”

Changing the subject, I ask him who he wants to see win the war in Ukraine. He avoids answering directly and just says, “I want to end the war as soon as possible.” She says that Israel has taken in almost 35,000 Ukrainian refugees, about half of them Jewish, and that she was responsible for mediating the creation of a humanitarian corridor out of Israel. the besieged steel mill in Mariupol and the release of the mayor of Melitopol, who had been taken hostage by the Russians. “If you want to remain effective, you have to keep the communication channel open,” she says.

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

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

What, then, will be the historic verdict on the Bennett government? Although he insists that his “experiment with him” was a success, he acknowledges that his opponents on both political extremes “found the weakest links and applied tremendous pressure.” But he also takes pride in what he was able to accomplish with radically 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 1,000 years from now. We focus on today.” Not the worst epitaph for a government that can still serve as a role model, in Israel and beyond.

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