Readying to leave office, Bennett says at IDF ceremony: ‘I did the best I could’

Prime minister, who will likely step down next week, tells new Air Force pilots, ‘I hand over a strong and secure State of Israel’

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a graduation ceremony for new pilots at Hatzerim air force base near the southern city of Beersheba, June 23, 2022. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a graduation ceremony for new pilots at Hatzerim air force base near the southern city of Beersheba, June 23, 2022. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, speaking Thursday at what will likely be his last military ceremony as premier, said he did his best for the country while in office.

“I did the best I could for the people of Israel, for my beloved people,” Bennett said at a graduation ceremony for Israel Defense Forces pilots at Hatzerim airbase in southern Israel.

On Monday, Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced that they would disband the Knesset and send Israel back to its fifth election in three and a half years. Bennett and Lapid said they had “exhausted” avenues to stabilize their rocky minority coalition.

The Knesset on Wednesday approved a preliminary bill to dissolve itself and is expected to formally disperse next week after going through two committee reviews and three more votes to voluntarily disband. Lapid will take over as caretaker prime minister, according to the coalition agreement.

The opposition is meanwhile trying to rush through a long-shot attempt to form an alternative coalition in the current Knesset by assembling a majority of lawmakers behind opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and avoid snap elections. A new coalition would be highly improbable given that Netanyahu is still opposed by a majority of lawmakers in the Knesset, including due to the fact that he is facing criminal charges in three graft cases.

Either way, Bennett is on his way out of office.

Prime Minister Nafatali Bennett, center, attends a graduation ceremony of air force pilots at the Hatzerim base in the Negev, on June 23, 2022. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Referring to his upcoming departure, Bennett said at the Thursday ceremony, “I hand over a strong and secure State of Israel with quiet on its borders.”

“Our enemies know very well that we will find them anywhere in the world in order to safeguard the security of our citizens. They are learning that whoever plots to attack us here will pay a heavy price at home,” he said.

“On a personal note, I would like to thank the soldiers and commanders of the IDF, the chief of staff and all of the security agencies – the Mossad, the Shin Bet and the Israel Police – for the rare privilege of having led them,” he said.

“Every time I approved an attack from the air by air force pilots, or a ground operation by IDF combat troops, Yamam [special police] or secret operations by members of other units, I knew we could rely on them,” Bennett said.

A graduation ceremony for cadets who have completed the Israeli Air Force pilots training, at the Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev desert, June 23, 2022. (Flash90)

Bennett’s political future is uncertain. Israeli media reports on Wednesday said he has floated the idea of taking a break from political life and not running in the next election. He has not publicly addressed the matter.

Polls released this week showed his Yamina party would only win four or five seats if elections were held today, compared to the seven the party picked up in the 2021 elections.

Yamina proved to be one of the weak links in the coalition, as some of its right-wing lawmakers clashed with other elements of the disparate government. Lawmaker Idit Silman quit the coalition in early April, reducing it to a 60-60 parity with the opposition in the 120-seat Knesset and setting off the crisis that led to the government’s downfall. Yamina Knesset member Nir Orbach effectively cut ties with the ruling bloc last week, robbing it of a majority and dealing it a death blow.

Bennett was first elected to the Knesset after leading the Jewish Home party to win 12 seats in the 2013 elections. He went on to serve as a minister in Netanyahu-led governments.

He failed to pass the electoral threshold with his New Right party in the April 2019 elections but was given a second chance when another round of elections was held in September that year, regaining a Knesset seat as part of the Yamina faction.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L), Yamina leader Naftali Bennett (C) and Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas sign a coalition agreement on June 2, 2021. (Courtesy of Ra’am)

Following elections in 2021, Bennett broke from his old ally Netanyahu and formed a historic, diverse unity government, with himself as premier. The coalition collapsed under the weight of defections in recent months, many of those from his own party due to ideological divisions with coalition partners.

In a farewell interview with The New York Times published on Wednesday, Bennett defended his short tenure as Israel’s leader, hailing the “experiment” of his diverse coalition as a “success.”

“In a world where domestic polarization is becoming almost the single biggest challenge, the experiment succeeded,” he said.

Bennett said that the diverse parties were able to accomplish all that they did by being willing to “set aside ideological disagreements” and focus on “better education, better jobs, better infrastructure.”

He touted Israel’s low unemployment, economic growth, and the government’s most visible success, which came in November when the Knesset approved a national budget for 2021 and 2022, the first time a budget had been approved in three and a half years. Bennett also hailed the free trade agreement signed with the United Arab Emirates and Israel’s participation in a US-led Middle East Air Defense Alliance.

But ultimately the coalition collapsed after opponents on both political extremes “found the weakest links and applied tremendous pressure,” he told the Times.

Fresh elections will likely take place in late October or early November, after the Jewish High Holidays.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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