'We must pull out of ongoing polarization, toxic dialogue'

Ex-PM Bennett says Israel needs a centrist government for next 10-20 years

Former premier says moderate leadership vital to ensure internal stability, claims Netanyahu’s polarizing coalition will dissuade voters from supporting hardline parties

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett (R) briefs reporters at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy alongside TWI scholar David Makovsky on April 18, 2023. (Screen capture/Zoom)
Former prime minister Naftali Bennett (R) briefs reporters at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy alongside TWI scholar David Makovsky on April 18, 2023. (Screen capture/Zoom)

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday that Israel needs to be run by centrist governments for the next 10 to 20 years in order to restore internal stability.

The stance laid out during a press briefing at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy highlighted a shift in Bennett’s approach since he entered politics a decade ago.

Early in his political career, as head of the national religious Jewish Home party from 2012 to 2018, Bennett largely criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the right and pushed for annexing large parts of the West Bank.

The stance Bennett laid out Tuesday is an extension of the views he began promoting during his short-lived tenure as prime minister from June 2021 to June 2022 when he headed a unity government, which spanned from his now-defunct Yamina party on the right to the Meretz party to the left alongside the Islamist Ra’am party.

His coalition fell apart in 2022 after just one year due to defections and recalcitrance from lawmakers on both ends of the bloc’s political spectrum. Despite its short-lived nature, Bennett said he still believes that the makeup of his government can be a model moving forward.

Bennett speculated during the briefing that the polarizing conduct of Netanyahu’s current government will lead Israelis to conclude that such a hardline composition of right-wing lawmakers should not be entrusted to run the country, similar to the conclusion drawn by many Israelis regarding more left-wing governments after the Second Intifada in the early 2000s.

The Netanyahu government’s effort to radically overhaul the judiciary has sparked 15 straight weeks of mass protests across the country and several pieces of proposed legislation seeking to expand the religious nature of the country have also caused uproar.

A group photo of the 37th Government of Israel, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, December 29, 2022 (Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office)

Laying out his political ideology, Bennett said, “My opinions are right of center, and I have not changed my opinions, but I have become a huge believer in the need for ‘moderacy’ in the way we govern Israel. I’m a radical moderate.”

“I believe that Israel for the next decade or two needs centrist governments that can focus on on the 70 percent of the issues that Israelis agree upon while setting aside the 30% of issues that are in ideological conflict,” he said, highlighting a talking point on which he leaned heavily while leading the previous government, which refused to launch contentious diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

“I think [this] is the only way forward for the next 10 to 20 years. We have to pull ourselves out of this ongoing polarization and toxic dialogue, and I believe Israel can succeed by doing that,” Bennett said.

Commenting on the ongoing protests in Israel against the government’s effort to overhaul the judiciary, Bennett said, “I see that our enemies believe that the protests are a sign of weakness. They are misinterpreting what Israel is about. This is a sign of strength, democracy in Israel will prevail, and Israel will come out stronger for all of this.”

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