Ahead of his first meeting in Washington with President Joe Biden this week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met in Jerusalem with the New York Times’ senior reporters in Israel, Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershner, to tell them said he “opposed U.S. efforts to restore a nuclear deal with Iran and ruled out peace talks with the Palestinians” (New Israeli Leader Backs Hard Line on Iran but Softer Tone With U.S.).
The short of it regarding the future of the liberated territories is that Bennett wants to expand the Judea and Samaria Jewish settlements – which Biden opposes, does not want a “consulate for Palestinians” in Jerusalem, and there won’t be a Palestinian State on his watch. As to Iran, Bennett will seek common ground with the administration on “containing” Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“I call it the good-will government,” Bennett told Kingsley and Kershner. “There’s a new dimension here: coming up with new ways to address problems, being very realistic, very pragmatic, and being reasonable with friends.”
He plans to forge a coalition of the Iran-fearing nations of the Middle East, and lead it in curtailing the Iranians. “Israel is here, we are the precise anchor of stability, of willingness to do the job to keep this area safer,” the Israeli PM declared.
That one didn’t fool his interviewers, who concluded that “the policies he cited could just as easily have been articulated by Mr. Netanyahu, if perhaps more combatively.” But they acknowledged that Bennett’s constructive tone differs from that of Mr. Netanyahu, who managed to antagonize the Obama administration back in 2015, when he attacked the Iran deal before a joint session of Congress, in a kind of Bibi state-of-the-union address. It didn’t go over well in the White House. And there was that unforgettable 2010 incident when the Netanyahu government announced broad new construction in eastern Jerusalem just as then-VP Biden was landing in Ben Gurion International. Biden was so furious, Netanyahu was one of the very last world leaders he called after his inauguration, right after calling David Vunagi, the Governor-General of Solomon Islands.
“Mr. Bennett’s more conciliatory approach is part of a wider effort by the new premier to show that Israel has moved on from Mr. Netanyahu,” the NYT reporters noted, and added, “But on major issues, the new Israel is a lot like the old one.”
“This government will neither annex nor form a Palestinian state, everyone gets that,” PM Bennett assured his interviewers. “I’m prime minister of all Israelis, and what I’m doing now is finding the middle ground – how we can focus on what we agree upon.”
Bennett has adopted former President Bill Clinton’s slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” or, as Kingsley and Kershner put it: “In Mr. Bennett’s view, most problems, including the Palestinian conflict, can be addressed through ‘economy, economy, economy.'” That one works, too. However, security issues will always trump the efforts to heal relations with the PA and Hamas through prosperity. “I will do what’s necessary to secure my people,” Bennett insisted. “I will not and never involve political considerations in defense- and security-related decisions.”
The US “consulate for Palestinians” in eastern Jerusalem does not fall under prosperity nor security. It has to do with the Biden administration’s urge to erase four years of bad Joo Joo between Ramallah and Washington under President Donald Trump. Bennett was clear in his objection to this diplomatic move because it would eat away at the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and diminish the status of the new American embassy in western Jerusalem. But the PM is less clear on how exactly he plans to block the move.
The NYT reporters chose to end their story with an anecdote that ridiculed Bennett because it was essential to their portrait: the embarrassing fiasco of the PM’s botched phone conversation with the father of the critically wounded Border Policeman Bar-el Shmueli – Bennett got the fighter’s name wrong and was generally unprepared.
Kingsley and Kershner concluded with the cry of a falcon sinking on its prey: “Another politician had also called the family and gotten all the details right, the soldier’s mother told the Israeli news media that morning. The politician’s name was Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Let’s hope that special ward of hell reserved for Western foreign correspondents is not yet full to capacity.