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‘Don’t give up on Israel,’ former Israeli premier Bennett urges American Jews

Most Israelis favor democracy, he assured an Israeli and American Jewish audience at Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center in Manhattan

NEW YORK — Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is urging American Jews not to give up on Israel as many worry that its new government will cast aside democratic norms.

“Even though we are going through a midlife crisis, do not give up on Israel,” Bennett said Monday evening at Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center in Manhattan. “We have an internal debate that we have to hash out. It’s not easy. We will overcome this because the majority of the public wants a Jewish and democratic Israel.” 

More than 100,000 people across Israel have rallied against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in recent weeks amid growing anger over a plan to weaken the Supreme Court and other democratic institutions. This week, American Jews in several major cities organized similar though smaller protests. American Jews voiced fears that the government will turn its back on religious and other minorities, and sideline Jews who challenge the Orthodox religious establishment.

“I don’t want to dispel all worries,” Bennett said in his talk, a question-and-answer session co-hosted by the UJA Federation of New York. “While one may like more or less a certain government, Israel is our family and when a family member goes through a crisis, you don’t give up on them. Quite the contrary, you embrace and help them through this period.”

He dismissed statements by some of the coalition partners against LGBTQ rights, as “lots of people say stupid things,” yet “much of it is not going to happen.”

Bennett encouraged American Jews to keep voicing their views and engage with Israel’s leaders.

Netanyahu, he said, should listen to even those who disagree with him. And he called on the opposition, which he once led, to work with the government toward reasonable reforms. “I’m worried because the discourse is so toxic,” Bennett said, adding: “There’s a lot of foolish words flying around. I think there’s a core of responsibility that will fend off the most radical of suggestions, but I don’t know, to be fair. I don’t know.”

Then Israeli prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu and former prime minister Naftali Bennett at the funeral of Rabbi Haim Drukman on Dec. 26, 2022. Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images

Striking an optimistic tone, Bennett voiced support for some of the reforms in the new government’s judicial overhaul plan, but said it still needs to evolve. “I smell compromise,” he said. 

Israeli officials as a rule do not criticize their government abroad, and Bennett, who ousted Netanyahu from office in June 2021, abided by that Monday evening. In his hourlong talk he mostly reflected on his short tenure as prime minister, which ended last June. 

Bennett, a former settler leader who supported the permanent Israeli annexation of the West Bank, managed to cobble together an astoundingly diverse coalition — which included an Arab party for the first time in Israeli history — to drive Netanyahu from office. At the outset, partners in the fragile coalition agreed not to tackle critical issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On the diplomatic front, his government restored warm relations with Washington, and Bennett established himself as an arbitrator between Russia and Ukraine. American Jews were also pleased that his government, the first that did not include Haredi parties, moved to liberalize religious rules on kashrut, marriage and conversion. 

But Bennett could not settle disputes within his own Yamina Party, failing to satisfy Knesset members pressured by constituents to expand settlements in the West Bank. Colleagues accused him of contravening party ideology for personal gain, and of paying too much attention to the crisis in Ukraine at the expense of crises within Israel. His coalition government lost its Knesset majority after 10 months. Two months later, Bennett triggered an early election — the fifth election in three years — reviving concerns over the health of Israel’s democracy.

On Monday, Bennett said he regretted not focusing more on domestic politics when he led Israel.

“I ought to have invested much more time on pushing out the message and doing politics and cultivating every member of Knesset,” he said.

But he added that he was satisfied with his governance overall, and hoped to have the chance to lead again.

“I will be back,” he said.

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