Outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke about his mistakes on the job, the political changes he believes Israel needs and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s suitability to lead, in several wide-ranging and candid interviews on Saturday night.
Strikingly, in comments to Channel 12, he said Israel would be best governed by a mix of parties ranging even more widely than his outgoing coalition, to include both the Ra’am Islamist party and the extremist Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir. In similar vein, he told Channel 13 that a solely right-wing government would be “a disaster” for Israel.
Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced their decision on Monday to dissolve the 24th Knesset after just one year in power due to their inability to keep their narrow, politically diverse coalition together any longer.
Lapid is set to become caretaker prime minister this week, as per their coalition agreement.
Bennett called for a more inclusive approach to politics in Israel, and an end to the practice of “invalidating” certain parties by their political opponents.
Before Bennett’s coalition took power, Israel went through a series of grueling, inconclusive elections, with no party able to assemble a majority coalition, as different political factions refused to sit with their opponents in a government.
Bennett and Lapid formed a broad “change” government that spanned the political spectrum, with right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties, plus the Islamist Ra’am. The coalition only ever held a narrow majority, though, meaning it could not afford any renegade members, and infighting between its disparate elements caused its collapse.
Bennett told Channel 12 Saturday that a government should not depend on parties and MKs from the “extremes,” like the opposition’s far-right Bezalel Smotrich and Ben Gvir of Religious Zionism, or his coalition’s Ra’am led by Mansour Abbas, but that they should not be ruled out.
“Would a government that depends on Ben Gvir and Smotrich be good for Israel? No. I’m not saying they’re barred, but the government cannot be dependant on them,” Bennett said. “This year proved it’s not good to be dependent on the extremes.”
“I want a coalition spanning from Ben Gvir to Mansour Abbas. That might sound like fiction,” he said. “The whole culture of ‘invalidation’ has to go.”
“You won’t see me so quickly signing public pledges,” such as he did before last year’s elections vowing not to partner with Ra’am or sit in a Lapid coalition. “That’s not the way.”
Israel is set to head to its fifth general election in under four years in the fall. The opposition bloc led by Netanyahu has been polling strongly, but no party has a clear path to a majority government without any changes in political alliances, raising fears of a return to political deadlock and instability.
Bennett’s political future is uncertain, as his party has fallen to four or five seats in polls, down from the seven it won last year in the 120-seat Knesset, and he has reportedly discussed taking a break from politics.
He has also refused to rule out sitting in a coalition under Netanyahu, who has led attacks against him from the opposition for the past year. Bennett’s government coalesced around a shared opposition to Netanyahu, who is battling corruption charges and has attacked the judiciary and state prosecution over the case against him.
Bennett said Saturday that Netanyahu’s harsh attacks against him and his political partners were “terrible and unacceptable,” but when pressed by Channel 12 interviewer Dana Weiss, he said he believes in doing what’s best for the country.
“What Israel needs now is a government that simply goes to work,” he said.
“I’m not awarding grades,” he said of Netanyahu. “It depends on what he would do. It depends on what constraints are on him.”
The core issue that should determine political alliances, he indicated, has to be what is in the interests of Israel. Asked, in that case, why he does not set up a government right now with the right, Bennett responded: “To set up a government in which the… center-left component is in mourning, and will be trampled, and have its bones crushed, as [right-wing] MKs say, would be very bad.”
Elaborating on this point in a separate interview with Channel 13, Bennett said: “A solely right-wing government in the current definition would be a disaster, in my opinion, because it lacks the [necessary] balances.”
Bennett also told Channel 12 he should have focused more on managing his own party and domestic politics while he was prime minister, and less on making progress with international leaders including Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky and the United Arab Emirates’ Mohamed bin Zayed, known as MBZ.
Bennett’s own right-wing Yamina party proved to be one of the weak links in the coalition. Party member Idit Silman left the coalition in April, reducing it to a 60-60 parity with the opposition and setting off the crisis that led to its downfall. Yamina’s Nir Orbach quit earlier this month, putting the coalition in the minority and dealing it a deathblow. Both lawmakers had clashed with the opposite flank of the coalition over issues including settlements before quitting.
“[Even as a prime minister] you need to devote 30-40 percent of your time to politics,” Bennett. “Less Zelensky, more Silman. Less MBZ and more Nir Orbach.”
Weiss showed Bennett a video of Silman telling Likud MK Yariv Levin, “I was good to the end.”
Asked about the scene, which seemed to amount to Silman seeking praise from the Likud MK for helping Netanyahu and the opposition oust her own party’s government and prime minister, Bennett said, “I don’t have much to say.”
“That’s a painful picture. It’s not her fault. It’s my fault. They killed her. The people from the [Netanyahu] and Smotrich machine turned her into a liar, and a cheat, and a fantasist… and I was busy with Iran,” he said.
Bennett said he has been much changed by his year in office.
“I won’t’ demonize anybody,” he said. “Today, I’m someone who wants to believe in the good in everyone, and to unify.”
“Together, together, together. How? That’s complicated,” he said.
“I will want to return,” he added. “I think I was a prime minister who tried to do good for his people and his country. I think I succeeded. The Holy One, blessed be he, and the people of Israel will decide.”