'I'm worried because the discourse is so toxic'

Bennett vows return to politics; urges US Jews: ‘Don’t give up on Israel’

At NY event, former PM says Israel ‘going through midlife crisis’; claims new gov’t continuing his Iran policies, describes Ukraine, Russia compromises agreed in early war talks

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett arrives at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 23, 2022. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)
Former prime minister Naftali Bennett arrives at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 23, 2022. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

NEW YORK — Former prime minister Naftali Bennett said he will 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 appeared to be continuing his policies toward Tehran after a series of attacks against Iran in recent days that have been attributed to Israel, described concessions Ukraine and Russia agreed to during negotiations he brokered at the start of the war, and voiced concern about 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 came back.

“Bibi was prime minister from ’96 to ’99 and he’s back,” Bennett said, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname.

“So I’ll be back,” he told an audience at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center in Manhattan at an event co-hosted by the UJA-Federation of New York.

Bennett stepped away from politics last year after his coalition lost its majority, leading to its collapse and the November election. He remained alternate prime minister after Yair Lapid took the reins of the government but largely took a backseat and kept out of the campaign.

He urged the audience to keep supporting Israel despite the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial reforms, anti-pluralist elements and far-right lawmakers, which have all strained ties with parts of the US Jewish establishment. Bennett was speaking with the UJA-Federation of New York CEO Eric Goldstein, who last week issued rare criticism of the new government.

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett, left, and UJA-Federation of New York CEO Eric Goldstein, right, in New York City, January 30, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“Lots of people say stupid things. Much of it is not going to happen. No one’s going to touch the LGBT community in Israel,” he said, apparently referring to the far-right Noam party and its leader Avi Maoz, and Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich, who are openly anti-LGBTQ.

“I urge you, don’t give up on Israel, even if we’re going through a midlife crisis,” Bennett said. “We will overcome this because the majority of the public wants a Jewish and democratic Israel, wants Judaism, does not want coercion.”

“When your family member goes through a crisis, you don’t give up on him. Quite the contrary, you embrace him, you help him through this period,” he said.

Bennett also said he supported some elements of the planned judicial overhaul, but that parts of the government’s sweeping plans to restructure the judiciary “go way too far,” including handing control of judicial appointments to politicians.

He said he suspected there will be a compromise over the judicial plans and its most extreme proposals will not be enacted, adding that a “core of responsibility” in the government will likely provide a check on “the most radical of the suggestions” concerning the justice system and 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’re in a very tense moment,” pointing to internal strife similar to the problems that befell the two historical Jewish kingdoms in Israel in under 80 years.

“Twice we didn’t pass our eighth decade. Now we’re in the middle of our eighth decade and we have to pass it successfully, and what happened both times before, it wasn’t an external enemy. We tore ourselves apart,” he said. “I’m worried because the discourse is so toxic. It’s basically two tribes that don’t listen to each other.”

He blamed right-wing “identity politics” for fueling divisions, saying there were no substantial differences between his positions and those of Netanyahu’s Likud party, and that the new government was driving “significant backlash in Israel on the streets.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, on October 22, 2021. (Evgeny Biyatov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

‘Octopus doctrine,’ Ukraine compromises

Bennett outlined his “Octopus doctrine” for dealing with Iran, describing the regime in Tehran as the “octopus head” with tentacles reaching across the Middle East to Israel’s borders.

Foreign reports this week said Israel had carried out strikes in Iran against weapons facilities. It was the first alleged Israeli attack inside Iran since Netanyahu returned to office, and may mark his continuation of the Bennett government’s policy, which intensified Jerusalem’s attacks inside the Islamic Republic.

Bennett said in an upcoming YouTube video shared with The New York Times that he decided to “create a price tag” and increase activities inside Iran following Tehran’s attempts “to murder Israelis in Cyprus, in Turkey” in 2022. He said that in the wake of the plot, the Revolutionary Guard Corps commander behind the attempted attacks was “eliminated” — a reference to the killing of Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei last May.

At the New York event Bennett said the new government appeared to be continuing his policy to “deter the head of the octopus” instead of fighting Iranian proxies closer to home.

“We shouldn’t be fighting their fingertips, we should go for the jugular,” he said. “The message resonates. Don’t mess with us, we’re not going to play games on our borders.”

Asked if Israel has the will and capability to take unilateral military action against Iran, Bennet answered “yes.”

Bennett also described his response to the outbreak of the Ukraine war, acknowledging that Israel was in a bind due to Russia’s command of Syrian airspace, where Israel acts against Iranian weapons shipments.

“I can’t have an Israeli pilot fall 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 negotiations, and that he acted in coordination with the Biden administration and European leaders.

He said he found Putin to be “very reasonable,” and that the Kremlin had agreed to forgo its demands for regime change and demilitarization in Ukraine.

Zelensky agreed to give up on Ukraine’s demand to join NATO, he said. The talks fell apart due to disputes over territory and international security guarantees, he said.

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