Naftali Bennett: 'Together we can heal Israel’s divide'

In his first major interview since leaving office, Israel's former prime minister calls for a return to unity


(C) Blake Ezra Photography 2023 Not to be reproduced without written permission. @BlakeEzraPhoto

Naftali Bennett has made his first major intervention into Israel’s political crisis, warning of the dangers of a “radical, extremist government” and calling for a return of the tolerance and compromise that characterised his time in power.

In a rare interview, Israel’s 13th prime minister, who has kept out of the spotlight since leaving office last year, told the JC: “Israel is learning the lesson of what a radical, extremist government looks like. It’s bad. We don’t want to be hijacked by the extreme radicals. They don’t represent what most Israelis want.”

Reflecting on the ecumenical spirit that pervaded his tenure, he said: “I began to see that the folks on the other side of the aisle are OK. They’re OK. They love Israel just as much as I do, even though I hold very different opinions from them.” He added: “This magic can be restored. And I will say: it must be restored.”

The former leader broke his silence on Israel’s political crisis on the eve of his keynote speech at the UJIA dinner in Kensington Palace, where he was also presented with the inaugural Jewish Chronicle Am Echad Award 2023 for contributions to Jewish unity on Wednesday.

“The reason I formed that very unlikely government was to try to prevent exactly what we’re seeing now,” the father-of-four said. “That’s why I put myself on the line and took a huge personal hit (many of his core supporters abandoned him after he formed a coalition with the left).

“I did it knowingly because what we now have is exactly what I tried to prevent: Israel going into a tailspin of division and poison.”

As prime minister, Bennett presided over the most diverse coalition government in Israel’s history. Although he acknowledged that it was missing MKs from Likud and the religious parties, he unified the political and religious spectrum to form a slim, anti-Netanyahu majority.

In a move that contrasts with the current polarised climate, he held the position of “alternate prime minister” alongside Yair Lapid, the left-winger with whom right-wing Bennett formed an unlikely “brit achim”, or bromance.

Contrary to the anti-Arab rhetoric from some in the current administration, Bennett insisted that Israel’s strongest governments would include pragmatic Arab politicians like Mansour Abbas, leader of the United Arab List.

“He’s a courageous Arab leader,” he said. “I know it might not be popular to say this — it’s easier to just bash the Arabs and gain popularity — but Mansour Abbas led a new way for the Israeli Arabs of being part of Israel.

“He recognises Israel as a Jewish democratic state. No meaningful Arab leader did that before. He wants to better the lives of Israeli Arabs and he’s taking a personal and physical risk with his life. Instead of pushing him away, we must embrace him.”

Although Bennett, 51, acknowledged that forming a government that relied on an Arab party for its single-seat majority was “premature”, he insisted that he was proud of including them in the government.

“We created a blueprint of how Israel can be,” he said. “Even though we are not there any longer, everyone in Israel can now point back and say, that is what we want. More and more people are now waking up and saying, that is what we want.”

The special forces veteran met the JC in the bar of his London hotel, wearing a dark shirt and the kippah that marked him out as Israel’s first religiously observant leader.

The JC award, of which Bennett is the first recipient, is inspired by “am echad b’lev echad”, a saying that translates as “one people with one heart”.

It recognises the former leader’s achievements in bridging the political divide, providing a safe haven for Ukrainian refugees, embracing diverse Jewish groups in the diaspora (he wrote for the JC in his first months in office) and building a powerful deterrent against those who wish Jews harm in Israel and overseas.

Despite the instability at home and fraying relationships with diaspora communities, the ex-tech entrepreneur cautioned against despair.

“I’m optimistic,” he told the JC. “I know that the great majority of Israelis want to return to the days of no drama, where you don’t wake up every morning with a provocation, with demonstrators attacking people as they pray, or the radical right attacking the left, or anything of that sort.

“We don’t want that. It’s not what we’re about. We’re better than that. And we will return to that.”

Bennett, who retired from politics in November last year to return to the tech sector, also called on Israelis to learn tolerance from the diaspora.

“A chasm is growing between Israelis and Jews abroad,” he said. “It’s as if sometimes we live in two different universes… Israelis must be much more open to Jews abroad and learn from them. There are some things that we can import from the diaspora. That includes accepting others, accepting people who are different.”

Bennett is the son of American olim who became observant while he was young. Strengthening the bond between Israel and diaspora Jews of all stripes should be a priority for any Israeli administration, he said.

“My very first memories are of my mum and dad taking us to shul in Canada [where they lived for two years], as we began the lengthy process of getting closer to Judaism. I was three or four years old, in Montreal.

"They sent me to a Chabad kindergarten to keep my Hebrew going. That’s where the process of chazara b’teshuvah (returning to religion) started. So for me, this is personal.”

His secular wife, pastry chef and family counsellor Gilat, 45, felt alienated by synagogues in Israel but became observant after attending a “beginners’ minyan” in New York.

“They accepted Gilat even though her sleeves were not long and even though she had no prior knowledge,” Bennett recalled. “In New York, everyone was welcome.”

At the UJIA dinner, his keynote speech received an enthusiastic reception from the 350 diners. Up to £1 million was raised at the landmark event to fund educational opportunities for young British Jews in Israel.

But Jewish unity can be maintained only if Israel’s enemies are repressed.

Turning to geopolitics, Bennett warned that countering Iran while extending the Abraham Accords meant a careful balancing act.

“I view the Saudi deal as a very meaningful step in the Middle East, both economically and in terms of a regional posture,” he said.

“It’s doable and I think it will be a wonderful prospect for Israel. It will also create a potential trade corridor between Israel and the east. However, we’ve never been at war with the Saudis, but we are in a very aggressive cold war with Iran and its axis.

“So anyone who thinks that normalisation with the Saudis will solve the primary Middle East problem, which is the Iranian octopus and its tentacles, is mistaken. Normalisation with the Saudis does not stop the centrifuges in Iran.”

He fears that focusing on a deal with Riyadh may distract policymakers from the threat posed by Tehran. “Iran is at its most advanced point in its nuclear programme in its history,” he said.

“We have been bombarded with words from Washington and from Jerusalem, very tough words. But words in those two capitals don’t stop the centrifuges from spinning.”

The former Israeli leader also cautioned that supporting Saudi civilian nuclear development, one of Riyadh’s key demands in the talks, could trigger an arms race in the region.

“We know that Iran is way further ahead than the Saudis in terms of nuclear development,” he said. “What needs to happen is we need to roll Iran back without accelerating the Saudis forward.

“We have to be extremely cautious not to trigger a nuclear arms race between the Saudis, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and others. We must not lose sight of the most important objective, Israel’s security.”

Having placed great emphasis on Israel’s defence, its status as a safe haven will not be enough to hold the country together in the long term, he added. “The remembrance of the Shoah alone will not be enough to keep the bond between Israel and the Jewish diaspora,” he explained.

“It was enough for the first 50 or 70 years but it’s not going to be enough for the next 100. There’s got to be something more to Israel than that.”

If the country is to thrive in the coming centuries, fostering a culture of tolerance and unity is vital.

“As prime minister, I set a rule called the 70/70 rule, which means recognising that 70 per cent of people in Israel agree on 70 per cent of the issues, such as better education, better transportation, better security,” he said. “We focused on that and froze the rest and put it aside.

“That atmosphere was contagious. Within weeks of forming the government, all the ministers understood this almost magical sensation that we’re just going to work together.

"It trickled down very quickly to senior officials and it was like magic. The whole system woke up and started working for the good of Israel. That’s how we got so much done.”

When asked whether he harboured ambitions to return to power, Bennett responded with a wry smile. “There’s a season for everything.”

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