Premier: Options are current government or endless elections

Conceding coalition management errors, PM vows more focus on politics moving forward

Bennett says he needs to do more to embrace right-wing base; lambasts Netanyahu, Smotrich for hounding renegade MK Silman; insists gov’t can function without majority in Knesset

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at the Judea and Samaria Division military base, near the West Bank settlement of Beit El, April 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at the Judea and Samaria Division military base, near the West Bank settlement of Beit El, April 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

In a series of interviews with Israel’s three major TV networks on Monday evening, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett acknowledged mistakes in the handling of his fractious coalition and pledged to focus more on internal political affairs moving forward.

He also insisted that his crisis-hit government could soldier on, and ruled out any cooperation with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he censured for his political conduct.

The appearances on Channels 12 and 13 and Kan came less than a week after fellow Yamina lawmaker Idit Silman announced her resignation from the coalition, robbing Bennett’s government of a majority in the Knesset and bringing the country significantly closer to what would be its fifth election campaign in three years.

Interviews with Bennett were broadcast on all three main newscasts in Israel. Such media blitzes are usually only done for holidays, ahead of elections, or if the government is in crisis mode, and Bennett easily admitted to the last one.

Mistakes were made

Bennett appeared to acknowledge in the Channel 13 interview that he had not done enough to keep his Yamina faction together, but insisted it was only because he was putting all of his efforts into fixing the country.

He claimed to be free of any political machinations, saying he only acts according to “what is good for the country.”

But he acknowledged that Yamina MK Abir Kara, who has also been rumored to be weighing a defection, was correct when he criticized Bennett for not doing enough “to embrace” his right-wing faction and its right-wing base.

MK Idit Silman, center, MK Abir Kara, left, and others vote on the state budget at the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“He’s right,” Bennett said. “Politics is very, very complicated. I’m stepping things up to deal with this.”

Bennett told Kan that he would pay more attention to the concerns of the individual lawmakers in his faction, calling them “heroes” for withstanding right-wing pressure he said no other coalition party has endured since the government was formed last June.

While acknowledging that Silman’s resignation was a serious blow for his government, Bennett insisted that the government has since “stabilized” and that he had acted quickly to prevent additional MKs from following in the footsteps of the renegade lawmaker.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to Channel 12 news, April 11, 2022 (Channel 12 screenshot)

He admitted that passing controversial legislation will be even more complicated from here on out, but argued that important laws with broad support will still advance.

He also alleged a “partnership” in the opposition between the Likud, Religious Zionism and Joint List parties, one that is even prepared to vote against bills they fully back simply to hurt his government.

Pressed further on his coalition’s apparent inability to pass legislation without a majority going forward, Bennett instead focused on what he said are his government’s achievements, including efforts to bring down rising prices, which he blamed on past governments.

Bennett told Channel 13 that additional Yamina members will not jump ship because the result will be “an abyss,” by which he meant more elections.

He dismissed the prospect of an alternate government led by Netanyahu as a “fiction” that is not politically feasible.

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (File; courtesy)

Bennett told Kan that his government had not succeeded in telling its “story” to the public: one of politicians from across the political spectrum putting aside their differences to work on behalf of the country and save it from an “abyss” of election after election (four national votes were held in 2019-2021).

No hard feelings

Despite the dysfunction that her decision has caused, Bennett told all three networks that he does not harbor any ill will toward Silman.

He told Channel 13 he is not angry at her, but “understands her,” and said that people sent by Likud and by Religious Zionism harassed Silman’s children and their teachers for long months, as well as those of Yamina MK Nir Orbach, though Bennett’s own family was spared the same treatment.

“They called her children’s Bnei Akiva [religious youth group] leaders and told them to boot the kids out of Bnei Akiva,” Bennett said.

He said Silman had once told him in tears at his home that Netanyahu’s and Smotrich’s emissaries had screamed unmentionable things at her children through megaphones, and that her husband Shmulik had told him they had called his place of work and threatened him with firing if his wife did not quit the coalition.

“What Idit Silman went through in the past 10 months nobody went through in the history of the state,” he told Channel 12. “It’s very hard not to break in a situation like that.”

“It’s inhuman,” he added, in comments that appeared aimed at not burning bridges with the renegade MK. “Her heart is in the right place,” he maintained.

Nir Orbach (L) Ayelet Shaked (C) and Abir Kara (R) (Flash90)

Still, Bennett lamented that “the response to extortion is not to run into the arms of those who are killing you.”

Bennett referred to reports that Netanyahu had promised Silman he would reserve a spot on the Likud list for her in the next election, in addition to appointing her health minister if he formed the next government. The premier called them “empty promises… that won’t be honored.”

“The door is obviously open” for her to return, Bennett said, and “it’s clear to me that in her heart she greatly believes” in the possibility and value of cooperation within the diverse coalition.

‘A true right-winger’

The premier went on to argue that a collapse of his coalition would return the country to the seemingly endless cycle of inconclusive elections.

“No, it’s either this government or there’s no government for Netanyahu,” he told Channel 13. “It’s fiction, everyone knows it.”

“Someone who tried four times to form a government and failed, and because of that shackled the entire country to improve his plea bargain — there won’t be a government like that, it’s not an option,” he added, referring to the fact that Netanyahu is on trial for corruption.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement before entering a courtroom at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24, 2020, for the start of his corruption trial. Alongside him from left are Likud MKs and ministers including Amir Ohana, Miri Regev, Nir Barkat, Israel Katz, Tzachi Hanegbi and Yoav Gallant. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett assured the network he was not thinking of joining Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu is not an enemy. He gave a great deal” to Israel “but let’s move on,” he said.

At the same time, he savaged Netanyahu for his ongoing political machinations, telling Channel 12 that “Bibi-ism is screaming all day against the left, and doing nothing, and in practice capitulating to the enemy.”

Amid accusations by right-wingers that he has moderated his views since becoming prime minister, Bennett argued that he is still more right-wing than Netanyahu ever was.

To be “truly right-wing means stopping the distribution of suitcases of [Qatari] cash in Gaza,” as he has done, and “hitting back at Gaza when there is [even] a single arson balloon.”

Bennett was referring to his policy for Gaza, which has indeed seen one of the quietest periods in years. However, the Qatari aid he referred to is still making its way to Gaza, simply in other ways, instead of suitcases.

The prime minister said he takes pains to use the words “Judea and Samaria” to describe the disputed territories, rather than “West Bank,” which he used recently.

The heads of the eight parties making up the prospective new government meet in the Knesset on June 13, 2021. Left to right: Ra’am head Mansour Abbas, Labor chief Merav Michaeli, Blue and White head Benny Gantz, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Yamina chief Naftali Bennett, New Hope head Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz (Ariel Zandberg)

He said that Netanyahu had once agreed to the US opening a consulate in East Jerusalem’s Abu Dis to serve Palestinians, but that when he met US President Joe Biden last year, he told him: “I greatly respect you, but Jerusalem is the capital of only one country and that’s the State of Israel.”

Further boasting of his right-wing bona fides, he pointed to recent cabinet decisions to establish new Jewish communities in the Negev and to double the population of the Golan.

Bennett asserted that after years of neglect, Israel was now tackling rampant crime in the Arab community, where there are estimated to be a quarter of a million illegal weapons.

Carrot and stick policy

Asked to explain his government’s response to the recent terror wave, Bennett told Channel 12 that the IDF, police and Shin Bet are tackling terrorism “at its source,” be it in “Jenin or Ya’bad” in the West Bank, where two terrorists who killed Israelis in Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak came from, “or Syria or Iran.”

“I can’t predict” how long the terror wave will last, “but we will win,” he said.

Bennett argued that past governments had “neglected” the West Bank security barrier and allowed it to fall into disrepair, and that this was now being corrected, referencing his government’s decision to replace porous sections of the West Bank security fence with a cement wall.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrives at the Beit El army headquarters in the West Bank, on April 5, 2022. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

He defended the government’s decision to stick with its plans to ease restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement during Ramadan amid the recent terror wave, describing the moves as part of “a carrot and stick” policy, that opposes harming those who “don’t want to harm us.”

Bennett said “quiet” Palestinians who do not threaten the state should be allowed to work in Israel, but that it should be done legally and with supervision.

He accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of “playing a double game… for years” by “encouraging terrorism, including through the education system, paying terrorists.”

“That’s why I won’t meet with him.”

Abbas has condemned the two most recent terror attacks in Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv, and the security coordination between the Palestinian security forces and the IDF has been credited for saving countless Israeli lives.

As for the opposition’s majority-Arab Joint List party, which has been floated by some as a potential lifeline to the ailing coalition, Bennett said it is “absolutely not” a legitimate political partner.

Joint List party leader Ayman Odeh speaks in a video in which he calls on Arab Israeli police officers to quit, saying they ‘humiliate’ their people on April 10, 2022 (Screen capture/Facebook)

On Sunday, Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh published a video urging Arab Israelis serving in Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem and the West Bank to quit. Bennett called the remarks a “revolt against the State of Israel” and said that “in my view, [they] are illegal and shameful.”

Bennett said he is proud of those Arab Israelis who serve, and loves them. He cited slain Arab police officer Amir Khoury‘s heroism in giving his life in a firefight that stopped the Bnei Brak terrorist.

“The Joint List is not and will not be part of the coalition,” he said. “The Joint List’s only partnership,” he argued, “is that with Netanyahu and [Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel] Smotrich.”

By contrast, he said his coalition includes the Arab party Ra’am, whose leader Mansour Abbas “recognizes Israel as a Jewish state and wants to heal Israeli rifts, and help fight crime in the Arab sector.”

Smotrich and Netanyahu and their backers “want to tear this apart.”

Russia-Ukraine mediation

He highlighted Yair Lapid as a “friend” doing excellent work in the Foreign Ministry and talked happily of his own recent summit talks in Egypt with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, on October 22, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Regarding his Russia-Ukraine mediation efforts, Bennett said he was asked to help and it was important to do so. “I came to help. But I am fully dedicated to ensuring the security of the State of Israel.”

Asked if his mediation had achieved anything, he said, “Yes, in numerous ways,” without giving details.

Acknowledging that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had criticized him and his government for “not being wrapped in the Ukrainian flag,” he said: “It’s true. I’m wrapped in the Israeli flag. The interests that I worry about are those of Israel’s citizens — freedom of movement in Syria; to be able to continue to hit Iran as close to the source… and to oppose the nuclear agreement.”

In the Channel 13 interview, he hinted that he was no longer actively involved in mediating between Russia and Ukraine. “When they call, I help them,” he said.

The opposition’s Likud party responded to the prime minister’s remarks in a statement saying, “Bennett, who broke all his promises to his constituents, continues to lie tonight without a break.”

“Bennett lost the majority in the Knesset this week, so he is also spreading lies about Idit Silman, who, in contrast, remained loyal to the principles on which she was elected. Bennett understands that his story is over and that it is time for a strong government that will restore peace and security to the citizens of Israel,” Likud said.

The Likud’s opposition ally, the Religious Zionism party, said Bennett is “making up stories” and “throwing about unfounded accusations” that  only serve “to prove, unfortunately, detachment from political and security reality.”

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