Five Takeaways From PM Bennett’s 'Exit Interview' With the NY Times

From claiming to end the siege on the Mariupol steel plant to a more symbolic buck against polarization, Bennett launched the defense of his legacy in what could be his last interview to foreign press as Israel's prime minister

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Haaretz
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Naftali Bennett.
Naftali Bennett.Credit: Moti Milrod
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Haaretz

Shortly after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a surprise announcement that he'd dissolve the government, he spoke to the New York Times’ Bret Stephens, looking back on his the accomplishments of his short-lived coalition of settlers, leftists, Islamists and centrists.

If next week’s bill to dissolve the Knesset passes, Yair Lapid will become the caretaker prime minister until elections are held on October 25 – Israel’s fifth in three-and-a-half years. Lapid will remain foreign minister, while Bennett will hold the role of alternate prime minister, though sources close to the prime minister say that he is weighing retiring from politics altogether.

Here are five takeaways from what could be Bennett’s last interview with the foreign press as he prepares to leave office.

Bennett sees himself as having bucked the trend of polarization

“In a world where domestic polarization is becoming almost the single biggest challenge, the experiment succeeded,” he told Stephens, taking credit for the economic recovery following the pandemic as well as blossoming defense and commercial ties with regional partners.

“In the past year we restored decency, honesty and even meeting commitments,” he added, in an implicit criticism of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s record-breaking tenure as Israel’s leader.

The diverse members of his coalition, he asserted, had “set aside ideological disagreements” to work on “better education, better jobs, better infrastructure,” even as the Netanyahu-led opposition “found the weakest links and applied tremendous pressure.”

Israel is increasingly engaged in cooperation with its Arab neighbors

Bennett declined to discuss possible under-the-table defense ties with Saudi Arabia, telling the Times that he “cannot elaborate” on questions regarding the kingdom’s possible role in a U.S.-backed Middle East Air Defense Alliance that Defense Minister Benny Gantz has claimed “has already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries.”

“I don’t want to hurt stuff,” he said.

Unveiling what he dubbed the "Middle East Air Defense Alliance" in a briefing to lawmakers, Gantz said earlier this week that “over the past year I have been leading an extensive program, together with my partners at the Pentagon and in the U.S. administration, that will strengthen the cooperation between Israel and countries in the region.”

Defense Minister Gantz speaking at the Knesset on Monday.Credit: Noam Moskowitz / Knesset Spokesperson

A Western diplomat in the region told Reuters last week that Washington was still working to convince Gulf Cooperation Council states as a bloc to agree to joining a U.S.-Israeli integrated air defense system. The GCC consists of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman.

Israel is operating on Iranian territory

What Bennett did say was that if the Iranians “hit us through proxies or directly, they will pay a price in Iran.” His comments, which referenced an “Octopus doctrine” focused on hitting decision-makers rather than operational actors, came as Israel has reportedly increased its attacks on Iranian nuclear sites and scientists.

Last month, a senior member of Iran's Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force was assassinated on in front of his home in Tehran, and other reported assassinations of military figures and scientists involved in weapons programs followed. Khodaei was likely behind a series of plots against Israeli businesspeople and diplomats in various countries this year.

People walk past a banner showing Iran's Revolutionary Guard Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei who was killed on Sunday, in Tehran, Iran, last month.Credit: Vahid Salemi /AP

“It turns out these guys are more vulnerable than they seem,” Bennett told the Times, adding that “the Iranian regime is rotten, corrupt – and incompetent.”

Israel helped end the siege of Azovstal

Bennett, who has positioned himself as a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine war, claimed “that he was responsible for mediating the creation of a humanitarian corridor out of the besieged steel works in Mariupol,” Stephens wrote, referring to the last Ukrainian stronghold in the coastal city which has since fallen to Russian forces.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett walking toward a helicopter following a visit to Moscow in March.Credit: AFP PHOTO / GPO

Asked to weigh in on the conflict in Ukraine, Bennett declined to state that he wishes to see a Ukrainian victory over Russian forces, instead saying that he wants “to end the war A.S.A.P.” and that “if one wants to continue to be effective you need to keep the communication channel open.”

Since the outbreak of the war, Israel has been seen to walk a tightrope with its efforts to comply with U.S. demands to speak out against Russia’s actions while aiming not to alienate Moscow – which allows the Israel Defense Forces to carry out strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. And as the Ukraine war progressed, Israel said it needed to remain neutral in light of Bennett’s mediation efforts between the two sides.

The Palestinian issue isn’t on the agenda

Bennett told the Times that while steps to bolster the Palestinian economy were being taken “in terms of a political treaty or something to that end, no one is talking or thinking about that right now.”

He also pushed back on recent reporting indicating that Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was likely shot by an Israeli soldier during an operation in the West Bank city of Jenin, even as he appeared to leave room for the possibility that the fatal bullet had come from an Israeli weapon.

FILE: Shireen Abu Aqleh, reporting from Jerusalem in June.Credit: Credit: AFP

“I do not know who shot that shot. What I do know is that Israeli soldiers did not shoot intentionally,” he told the Times.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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