In his first interview since signing an agreement that would see him lead a government to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yamina chair Naftali Bennett on Thursday defended his decision to form a power-sharing coalition with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, saying he did it “for the sake of the country”
Speaking with Channel 12 news, prime minister-designate Bennett pushed back on criticism from some on the right that he broke his promise not to join a government in which Lapid would serve as prime minister. In the new coalition, Bennett is set to become prime minister for the first two years, followed by Lapid for the latter two.
“The core promise in these elections was to get Israel out of the chaos,” he said. “I was the only party that was neither ‘Only Bibi’ nor ‘Anyone but Bibi,’ and I paid an electoral price for that,” apparently referring to winning just 7 seats.
Joining the coalition will be a mix of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties that had refused to join a government led by Netanyahu, currently on trial in three criminal cases, as well as the Islamist Ra’am party, which, like Yamina, had vacillated between the Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu bloc.
On the eve of the March 23 elections, Bennett went on TV to sign a pledge not to sit in a government with Lapid or to agree to a rotation agreement with him.
“I understood that if I stick to those words, we won’t get Israel out of the chaos. It’s the easiest thing to entrench yourself in every promise, if everyone did that no government would have been formed, and it happened after four elections. I knew I was going to be criticized, and in the choice between what’s good for Israel and this thing, I chose what’s good for Israel,” Bennett said Thursday.
He said that when he joined forces with centrist and left-wing parties, “I told my kids that their father was going to be the most hated person in the country. But I explained that I was doing it for the sake of their country.”
Netanyahu has accused the nationalist Bennett of seeking to form a left-wing government due to political ambition, and of betraying the right (though Bennett supported Netanyahu’s own efforts to form a government until those failed.)
Netanyahu has also repeatedly included left-wing parties in his coalitions and negotiated with Ra’am when trying to form a government in April and when trying to block the Lapid-Bennett effort in recent days.
Asked about Ra’am party leader and new coalition partner Mansour Abbas, whom Bennett repeatedly called a “terror supporter” before the elections, the Yamina leader said, “Mansour Abbas isn’t a terror supporter. I met an honest man and a brave leader who is reaching out and seeking to help Israeli citizens.”
Rejecting the suggestion that relying on an Arab Israeli party could weaken the government’s response to terrorism, a claim he has himself made in the past, Bennett insisted that his government would take whatever military action is necessary, including in Gaza, despite its reliance on Ra’am. If the coalition were to fall apart after any such operation, “so be it… there’d be elections.”
He said the coalition deal with Ra’am only referred to civil matters, not security issues.
Before the elections, Bennett slammed Netanyahu for negotiating with Ra’am’s Abbas, whose party is the political wing of the southern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement.
Responding to Netanyahu’s allegations that his government will be left-wing and dangerous to Israel’s security, Bennett hit back, “It wasn’t me who gave up [much of] Hebron [to the Palestinian Authority]. That was Netanyahu. It wasn’t me who released thousands of terrorists and murderers [in the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner deal]. That was Netanyahu. We’re establishing a government with people who think a little differently [from the political right]. That’s all.”
Bennett, a former head of the Settlers’ Council who favors annexation of much of the West Bank, insisted that the new government would not approve any territorial withdrawals.
Asked whether he still considers the Palestinian problem to be akin to “shrapnel in the butt” — a 2013 parallel he drew apparently to indicate that living with it was preferable to the surgery of territorial separation — Bennett said this was “a comment that I would have changed in retrospect.” In fact, he went on, “the national conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinians is not over land. The Palestinians do not recognize the essence of our existence here, and this will apparently be the case for a long time to come.”
His goal, he said, will be to “minimize the conflict. We won’t be able to solve it.” He says he will favor moves to safely improve and ease conditions for the Palestinians — in terms of the economy, freedom of movement and so on– “for a better quality of life.”
Reminded that the left-wing parties in his planned coalition see things differently, he said, “We’ll manage.”
Denouncing efforts to torpedo its swearing-in, Bennett said he “hopes and believes” the new, eight-party government, which appears to have a slender 61-59 majority in the Knesset, will be safely voted into office in the next few days.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.