In his first interview as ‘expected prime minister,’ Naftali Bennett explains his reasoning for taking the helm of a government that includes left-wing, Arab support.
By Paul Shindman, World Israel News
The man who appears to be Israel’s next designated prime minister, Naftali Bennett, gave his first interview Thursday explaining how he intends to lead the country and said he warned his family that as Israel’s leader he would become “the most hated person in the country.”
In a wide-ranging interview with Israel’s Channel 12 news, the leader of the right-wing Yemina party talked about his decision to form a government of change with center-left Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, the personal attacks against him for breaking some of his election promises, and what he said to his family when he made the dramatic decision.
Born in Haifa to immigrant American parents, Bennett served in the same elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and currently has the reserve rank of major. Following his army career he co-founded the Israeli software startup Cyota, which he later sold for $145 million.
Following his service in the 2006 Lebanon war, Bennett got his start in politics as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief-of-staff from 2006-8. He left the prime minister’s office and Netanyahu’s Likud party, eventually getting elected to the Knesset in 2013 and serving in several key roles including as minister of defense and education.
Earlier this week Lapid announced that he had formed a coalition of eight small parties in order to get a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and one of his key concessions was to let Bennett serve as prime minister for two years before Lapid himself will become Israel’s leader.
With Bennett expect to become Israel’s 13th prime minister next week, he answered some tough questions from Channel 12 as to why he went back on several election promises in his decision to join with Lapid, saying he and Lapid intend to heal the country.
“I hope and believe that in about 10 days a new government will be formed that will put an end to a very bad period for the State of Israel, a period of quarrels, of alarms, of four elections, of chaos – and we will get the country back on track,” Bennett said, admitting that getting to the vote approving the government is “going to be hard.”
“We are going to see very heavy pressure on every Knesset member and threats and proposals here and there,” Bennett said. “I believe that with determination and understanding the magnitude of the event of all parties, of all coalition members, we will be able to do it.”
Reminded that before the election he publicly signed a commitment to never to sit in a government with Lapid, Bennett said his main obligation was to avoid more inconclusive elections.
“The core promise in this election was to get Israel out of the chaos,” Bennett said, admitting his party paid an electoral price for not joining a coalition with Netanyahu.
“I understand that if we stick to these things, we will not get the country out of chaos,” he said, noting that in the four elections in the past two years no stable government was formed.
I knew I was going to be criticized
“Here I knew I was going to be criticized … and in choosing between what is good for Israel and this thing – I chose what is good for Israel.”
Bennett also admitted that he had previously vetoed any idea of being in a government that was supported by the religious Islamic United Arab List (Ra’am) party headed by Mansour Abbas, pointing out that lacking the 61 seat majority needed in the Knesset, Netanyahu was the first right-wing leader to seek Ra’am’s support.
“I really did not imagine in a thousand years that I would sit [in a government] with Mansour Abbas, I did not imagine,” Bennett said, but said that the political constraints led to the current situation.
Bennett talked about how during Arab-Jewish riots last month in Lod, Abbas came to the city at the peak of the violence and offered to help.
“I saw a decent person, I saw a brave leader, it has to be said,” Bennett stated, adding that Abbas “reaches out and says a very simple thing: ‘I want to take care of the civic aspect of the Arabs of Israel.'”
“In this context, I say there is a considerable opportunity here to open a new page in the relationship between the State of Israel and the Arabs of Israel, on the civil side, we will go for it,” Bennett said, but admitted that his cozying up to an anti-Zionist Arab party had angered his electoral base.
“Look, I know a lot of my voters are in pain and the pain is real and I accept the criticism with understanding. They are angry, hurt, some very happy. The majority are confused and anxious,” but said his supporters were different from the Likud and Religious Zionism party members who are “firing poison and lies … day and night.”
“But decent people were hurt and the only thing I can tell them is what I said to my family on that Saturday, before I made the decision: Dad is going to make a move that will make him the most hated person in the State of Israel, very unpopular,” Bennett said. “I do it for my country.”
“Certainly, I am a person with ambition, I would not have reached this point without it,” he said, rejecting allegations he personally coveted the power of the prime minister’s chair.
“My drive in life, I came to politics for my people, I came to politics after a war, the Second Lebanon War, where I lost my best friend because there were leaders who lost the way. Even today there is a loss of way,” he said, emphasizing that he was remaining true to his ideology.