NEW YORK – Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he would return to politics and urged US Jews to continue supporting Israel despite tensions with the new government in a discussion in New York on Monday.
He also said the new government appears to be continuing its policy towards Tehran after a series of attacks on Iran in recent days that have been blamed on Israel, described concessions agreed by Ukraine and Russia during negotiations he brokered at the start of the war, and expressed concern about the polarization in Israeli society.
Asked if he would return to politics, Bennett said: “In Israel, we can be recycled. It never ends. [Yitzhak] Rabin was prime minister from ’74 to ’77 and back.
“Bibi was prime minister from ’96 to ’99 and he came back,” Bennett said, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname.
“So I’ll be back,” she told an audience at Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center at an event co-hosted by New York’s UJA-Federation.
Bennett stepped away from politics last year after his coalition lost its majority, leading to its collapse and last year’s election. He remained acting prime minister after Yair Lapid took over the government, but largely faded into the background and stayed out of the campaign.
He urged the public to continue supporting Israel despite the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial reforms, anti-plural elements and far-right lawmakers, all of whom have tense ties to parts of the US Jewish establishment. Bennett was speaking with UJA-Federation of New York CEO Eric Goldstein, who released rare criticisms of the new government last week.
“Many people say stupid things. Most of that won’t happen. Nobody will touch the LGBT community in Israel,” she said, apparently referring to the far-right Noam party and its leader Avi Maoz, and Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich, who are vocally anti-LGBTQ.
“I urge you, don’t give up on Israel, even as we go through a midlife crisis,” Bennett said. “We will overcome this because the majority of the public wants a Jewish and democratic Israel, they want Judaism, they don’t want coercion.”
“When a family member of yours goes through a crisis, you don’t give up, on the contrary, you hug him, you help him get through this period,” he said.
Bennett also said he supports some elements of the planned judicial review, but that parts of the government’s sweeping plans to restructure the judiciary “go too far”, including handing over control of judicial appointments to politicians.
He said he suspects there will be a compromise on judicial plans and his more extreme proposals will not be implemented, adding that a “core accountability” in the government will likely provide a check on the “most radical of suggestions” regarding the justice system and religious policies such as the Law of Return.
Bennett added that even though Israel was thriving in many ways, including its economy and its relative security, “we are in a very tense time,” pointing to internal conflict similar to the problems that beset Israel’s two historic Jewish kingdoms under 80 years.
“Twice we didn’t make it past our eighth decade. We’re now in the middle of our eighth decade and have to make it through successfully, and what happened both times before, it wasn’t an external enemy. We tore each other apart,” he said. “I’m concerned because the speech is so toxic. It’s basically two tribes not listening to each other.
He blamed right-wing “identity politics” for fueling the divisions, saying there were no substantial differences between his positions and Netanyahu’s Likud party, and that the new government was leading “a significant backlash on the streets in Israel”.
“Octopus Doctrine”, compromises Ukraine
Bennett outlined his “octopus doctrine” for dealing with Iran, describing the regime in Tehran as the “octopus head” with tentacles stretching across the Middle East to Israel’s borders.
Foreign reports this week claim that Israel has carried out attacks in Iran against weapons facilities. It was the first alleged Israeli attack inside Iran since Netanyahu returned to office, and could mark his continuation of the Bennett government’s policy of escalating Jerusalem attacks inside the Islamic Republic.
Bennett said in an upcoming YouTube video shared with The New York Times that he has decided to “create a price” and increase activity inside Iran following Tehran’s attempts “to kill Israelis in Cyprus, Turkey” in 2022. He said that in the wake of the plot, the Revolutionary Guard Corps commander behind the attack attempts has been “eliminated” – a reference to the killing of Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei last May.
At the New York event, Bennett said the new government appeared to be continuing its policy of “discouraging octopus head” instead of fighting Iranian proxies closer to home.
“We shouldn’t be fighting with our fingertips, we should be aiming for the jugular,” he said. “The message resonates. Don’t mess with us, we won’t play on our borders.
When asked if Israel has the will and ability to take unilateral military action against Iran, Bennett replied “yes”.
Bennett also described his response to the outbreak of war in Ukraine, acknowledging that Israel was in trouble because of Russia’s command of Syrian airspace, where Israel acts against Iranian arms shipments.
“I can’t drop an Israeli pilot in Syria,” he said.
Bennett was the first world leader to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin after Russia invaded its neighbor. He said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had asked him to broker the negotiations and that he acted in coordination with the Biden administration and European leaders.
He said he found Putin “very reasonable” and that the Kremlin had agreed to drop his calls for regime change and demilitarization in Ukraine.
Zelensky has agreed to drop Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, he said. The talks collapsed due to disputes over territory and international security guarantees, he said she.