New Israeli leader backs hard line on Iran but softer tone with US

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (above) was speaking just days before his first meeting with US President Joe Biden as Israel's new leader. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (NYTIMES) - Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, speaking days before his first meeting with President Joe Biden as Israel's new leader, said he would oppose US-led attempts to reinstate a lapsed nuclear agreement with Iran and continue Israel's covert attacks on Iran's nuclear program.

In an interview with The New York Times, his first with an international news organization since succeeding Benjamin Netanyahu in June, he also said he would expand West Bank settlements that Biden opposes, declined to back US plans to reopen a consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem and ruled out reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians under his watch.

While these policies differed little in substance from those of his predecessor, Mr Bennett said he would use the meeting with Mr Biden to try to reset the tone of Israel's relationship with the United States, which was rocky between Netanyahu and Democratic administrations.

He said he would seek common ground with the Biden administration on Iran, and promised to arrive at the White House with a new and constructive approach to containing Iran's nuclear program.

"I call it the goodwill government," he said. "There's a new dimension here - coming up with new ways to address problems, being very realistic, very pragmatic and being reasonable with friends."

Mr Bennett said he would present a new strategic vision on Iran, which he said would include strengthening ties with Arab countries opposed to Iran's regional influence and nuclear ambitions, taking diplomatic and economic action against Iran, and continuing Israel's clandestine attacks on Iran, including what he called "the gray-area stuff."

"What we need to do, and what we are doing, is forming a regional coalition of reasonable Arab countries, together with us, that will fend off and block this expansion and this desire for domination" by Iran, Mr Bennett said.

"Israel is here," he added. "We are the precise anchor of stability, of willingness to do the job to keep this area safer." Against the backdrop of America's chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the installation of a new, hard-line president in Iran, Bennett's charm offensive could provide Biden with a minor foreign policy laurel - the revitalization of a relationship with a key U.S. ally after recent setbacks on the world stage.

But it could also provide kindling for friction.

Bennett did not reveal details of his new vision for Iran, but the policies he cited could just as easily have been articulated by Netanyahu, if perhaps more combatively. Netanyahu vehemently opposed the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which he said did not do enough to restrict Iran's long-term nuclear ambitions and failed to address Iran's other destabilizing activities in the region, including its support for proxy militias.

Mr Netanyahu successfully encouraged President Donald Trump to abandon the deal. He also accelerated a long-running shadow war with Iran and sealed diplomatic agreements with four Arab countries that once ostracised Israel - deals that he hoped would help his fight against Iran.

But Mr Bennett's constructive tone differs from that of Mr Netanyahu, who had a strong relationship with the Trump administration but a fraught one with the Democratic administrations that bookended Mr Trump's tenure.

In 2015, Mr Netanyahu antagonised President Barack Obama with a combative speech before Congress that criticised the impending nuclear deal, and in 2010 he embarrassed Biden, then Obama's vice president, when his government announced new settlement construction in East Jerusalem shortly after Mr Biden arrived in Israel on an official visit.

It took Mr Biden nearly a month after his inauguration to call Mr Netanyahu, which some Israeli analysts took as a snub. In contrast, Mr Biden called Mr Bennett just two hours after the new Israeli leader had been sworn into office.

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, who developed an increasingly fractious relationship with congressional Democrats and polarised American Jews, an approach that critics said risked turning seven decades of solid U.S. support for Israel into a partisan issue.

By contrast, Mr Bennett heads a diverse governing coalition that he says aims to soothe Israel's social and political divisions, tackle domestic policy conundrums that went unaddressed during Mr Netanyahu's final years in power and heal relations with the Biden administration and estranged Arab countries, like Jordan.

"We could be this lighthouse in a storm, if you will," Mr Bennett said.

A former high-tech entrepreneur who spent parts of his childhood in the United States and Canada and speaks fluent English, Mr Bennett represents a new generation in Israeli politics.

The first Israeli prime minister to wear a kippa, a Jewish skullcap, he has long moved easily between the religious and secular worlds and says the skills required for building successful startups equally apply when it comes to rebooting the country.

"It's all about flexibility," he said. "It's about responding rapidly to new information and new developments."

But on major issues, the new Israel is a lot like the old one.

A former settler leader who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, Mr Bennett said there would be no resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians for the foreseeable future.

But he also said that he would not advance his earlier plan, later endorsed then dropped by Mr Netanyahu, to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank.

Peace talks will not happen partly because the Palestinian leadership is fractured and rudderless, he said. But it is also because Mr Bennett is resolutely opposed to Palestinian sovereignty.

And on a practical level, any attempt to address the issue would break up his diverse coalition, which includes parties that support Palestinian statehood and others opposed.

"This government is a government that will make dramatic breakthroughs in the economy," Mr Bennett said. "Its claim to fame will not be solving the 130-year-old conflict here in Israel."

He added: "This government will neither annex nor form a Palestinian state, everyone gets that. 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."

In Mr Bennett's view, most problems, including the Palestinian conflict, can be addressed through "economy, economy, economy."

He intends to focus on bottom-up, on-the-ground steps that he said were more important than recycled political efforts doomed to failure.

But on the construction of West Bank settlements and the blockade of Gaza, Bennett is picking up where Mr Netanyahu left off.

The blockade will remain as long as Hamas, the militant group that rules the territory, continues to arm itself and fire rockets at Israel, he said. And he said he would be prepared to engage in another war with Hamas even if it lost him the support of the four Arab lawmakers whose backing keeps him in power.

"I will do what's necessary to secure my people," Mr Bennett said. "I will not and never involve political considerations in defense- and security-related decisions."

Mr Bennett authorised several air raids on militant bases in Gaza on recent nights, after arsonists in Gaza sent incendiary balloons into southern Israel and a militant shot and critically wounded an Israeli soldier who had been firing on Palestinian rioters.

These exchanges tested the fragile cease-fire that ended an 11-day war in May, but which has yet to be formalised.

Bennett said his government would extend a long-standing Israeli policy of expanding existing settlements in the West Bank, which much of the world considers illegal under international law and an impediment to the creation of a future Palestinian state in the occupied territories.

"Israel will continue the standard policy of natural growth," Mr Bennett said.

He also declined to comment directly on whether he would block the Biden administration's efforts to reestablish a consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem. Trump closed the consulate, folding its duties into the US Embassy, which he moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

But Mr Biden hopes to reopen the consulate to help mend a relationship with the Palestinians that collapsed under Mr Trump. Palestinians hope that East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967, will one day form the capital of a Palestinian state. Bennett chafes at any gesture that might signal support for a future division of the city.

"Jerusalem is the capital of Israel," Mr Bennett said. "It's not the capital of other nations." And the prime minister batted away rights issues that recent polls suggest are of increasing concern to liberal Jews in the United States.

He rejected claims that Israel operates a policy of apartheid in the West Bank, and condemned a recent decision by the ice cream maker, Ben & Jerry's, to stop selling ice cream in the occupied territories.

Over the course of an hourlong interview, Mr Bennett was at his most engaged and passionate when talking about more technocratic topics, like his recent decision to provide Israelis with a third dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

Israel is battling a fourth wave of coronavirus infections despite having a world-leading vaccination program. Mr Bennett is micromanaging the crisis, starting each day by reviewing new global and Israeli data and research.

He pioneered the provision of booster shots before the practice was approved by US health authorities, again turning Israel into a real-world test case for vaccine efficacy.

"I talk to, I'd say, three or four leaders around the world about stuff every week," Mr Bennett said. "The moment Covid comes up, a 20-minute call turns into an hour-and-a-half call. Because COvid is the biggest issue on every leader's plate." Surrounded by biographies of great leaders - including Caesar, Abraham Lincoln and Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion - Mr Bennett portrayed himself as having prepared all his life for this moment of leadership.

But amid all the talk of a post-Netanyahu era, it was not long before the Israeli reality hit home. Mid-interview, an aide burst into Bennett's office, asking us to leave. A domestic public relations crisis needed the prime minister's urgent attention.

Mr Bennett had spoken the previous night to the family of the soldier wounded in the recent Gaza clashes, and at one point bungled the soldier's name. 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.

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