An Interview with Nahum Barnea

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In an exclusive interview with Moment senior editor George E. Johnson, Israel Prize-winning journalist Nahum Barnea offers fresh insights on how Naftali Bennett, Israel’s new Prime Minister, will govern and why it may be different in both method and substance from his predecessor and from what people may have assumed based on policy positions and priorities Bennett has espoused as a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle. Barnea focuses on how President Biden’s long experience and record in Middle East politics presents opportunities for Israel in the years ahead regarding the region and Iran in particular, and why Bennett will depart from Netanyahu’s approach to seeking allies among Americans in general and among American Jews.


HIGHLIGHTS FROM MOMENT INTERVIEW WITH ISRAELI JOURNALIST NAHUM BARNEA

Interview by George E. Johnson, Senior Editor

[This is] a very, very special government in the history of Israel. It’s not only fragile because only 61 members of Knesset support it, which means that they depend on every member of Knesset in order to have a majority. This is something we had in the past too . . . but it is more fragile because it is composed of eight factions, eight parties, which start from the radical right, and goes all the way to the radical left. We have included one of the Arab parties for the first time in the history of Israel. This makes this government really depend on every vote, and they have to convince each other to support every decision.

*   *

This government was built not only under the shadow of his leadership, but more than that. It was composed of parties who really looked at the option of kicking him out as the first option, the first target. The first goal for the party was to get rid of him. In a way, the establishment of the government was the most radical or the most important action they had envisioned when they ran for election. This was the fulfillment of what they promised the voters.

*   *

Bennett and Lapid are two equal Prime Ministers in a way. Both of them have to see to it that all these eight parties will manage together. They are like soldiers who went to basic training and are asked to launch a strategic operation, a war. It’s a jump to the permanent position to the responsibilities that come with the government. It’s not going to be easy. But at the same time, you have a lot of ambition to continue to succeed. The Netanyahu governments . . . had a . . .built in problem. At least one of the two leaders wanted to break the agreement, and run for another election. Here, they know that [an] election will probably destroy all of them. You have a lot of will in the coalition to keep on to succeed.

*   *   

You have to understand that the two and a half years of a political crisis in Israel have done real serious damage to the country, and to the society, and to our capacity to work together. There is some great promise in this government.

*   *

The grievances or the problems a lot of American Jews have with Israeli policy, this is an issue, which maybe was neglected years ago, but now, it’s really one of the topics on the Israeli agenda, and I’m talking about the discourse. Not about policy yet. Maybe it will be an exaggeration, but I will say this. If I understood Netanyahu’s approach well, and maybe I’m not sure here, he believed that the future of Israeli power or lobbying power in the United States, lies first and foremost with the evangelical churches, and secondly, with Orthodox Jews in the States, and not with the majority of the American Jewish community, which . . . is not Orthodox. I believe there was [something] American in his analysis because he saw how Reform Jews were not heard because of internal political considerations and because of Netanyahu’s governments. Most of Netanyahu’s governments really lived under the pressure of the ultra-Orthodox communities. The government had no choice but to look at the Reform Jews as something which you should bypass. The ultra-Orthodox communities looked at the Reform Jews as enemies. They thought of them as worse than the left, worse than the non-Jews. Even worse than antisemites because they say, look, they are the competition. They are the people who will make the Jewish world less Jewish. The rest of them will not do it.

*   *

Now, Bennett . . .has a different opinion about it. He is what we call Ra’anana Orthodox. He lives in Ra’anana, and there is a beautiful Orthodox community in Ra’anana. Many of the people there come from Anglo-Saxon countries, and the community is very open, very liberal. For example, the fight over the Wall [in the Old City], was really hectic and very emotional, and the Reform movement felt they’re really discriminated against in this area. Bennett tried to compose a compromise years ago, which I believe the Reform Jews endorsed and the Orthodox Jews did their best to neglect, or to bypass it. Anyway, for Bennett, trying to revive our warm relations with the rest of the Jewish community, the Jews who are liberal, who voted for Democratic presidents – Orthodox, Reform, even secular—for him, it’s an important issue.

It is even more important for the “alternate” Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, who is now the Foreign Minister and is going to become the Prime Minister in two and a half years. For him, it will be a major issue. What you will see is that the [ultra-]Orthodox are now in opposition. They’re not part of the government. At least on paper, it is easier to court these members of the [American] Jewish community, in a way that Netanyahu couldn’t or didn’t want to do.

 *    *

Regarding the status of the Reform Jews [in Israel], you have a vast majority of Israelis who would like to welcome them. Even today, we have a very small reform movement here in Israel. But people who are Orthodox, [but] don’t belong to the ultra-Orthodox, these people would like to have any Jew who would like to be [in Israel] or who supports Israel to come here. It will be relatively easier. I know that for the ultra-Orthodox parties, this will be a red light. It will be really something which for them, it will be a cause for “war”.

 *    *

For Lapid, as a Foreign Minister, he will try to mend the wounds we have with the Democrats. Let’s forget why it happened and who is to blame, but the fact is that there’s a progressive wing of the Democratic Party. We have something which has lingered for years. I believe Lapid will do his best to approach them. I’m not sure he has the power to convince Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or the distinguished Congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar.  .  . For several people in this progressive wing, the criticism of Israel became a narrative. They’ve succeeded at it. This is their motto, which is very difficult.

 *     *

Biden was always a supporter of Israel, but his support came out of knowledge, and the very deep knowledge of the problems of the Middle East. He’s no stranger to the Middle East. He criticized the policies of Netanyahu in recent years. But even that was done very cautiously. 

I happened to read last week an interview that was done in one of the Israeli papers 40 years ago with a young Senator from Delaware, called Joe Biden, about the AWACS [intelligence-laden military aircraft] affair: “We will not allow Reagan to sell this plane, this very sophisticated plane, to Saudi Arabia because the security of Israel is the security of the United States. I’m not saying it only because I love Israel, but I’m saying it because I support the security of my country, the United States. I’m a Catholic. I’m not a Jew. The roots are very deep.” [paraphrasing the article] At the same time, when he was the vice president, he was humiliated time and again when he came to Israel, because every time he came, somebody, a politician in the party or the mayor of Jerusalem at the time, came up with another plan to settle Jews in a Palestinian area. For him, it was really a humiliation and he remembers it very well. For him the change of power in Jerusalem was a welcome change, I believe.

*    *

[Bennett] has a plan. Not only an attitude. He has a plan, which has no chance to be implemented in the current government. But he still believes in it. Long before he became Prime Minister his plan was that Israel should annex area C. The West Bank is divided between area A, which is 100% Palestinian; area B, which is divided—Palestinians have the power, but the land is guarded by the IDF more or less in area B; and Area C, which is occupied fully by Israel. He suggested that Israel annex area C and give the Palestinians, who number less than 100,000, full citizenship. This was his idea. For Palestinians, it’s a big problem, because area C is the majority of the West Bank.

It was basically a right-wing idea. For the United States, I don’t see any American president, including Trump, who could endorse this idea. But this is what he basically believes. He believes in one sovereign state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and a Palestinian authority that will have semi-independence. It will have independence in many, many areas, but Israel will surround it. It will be the major force in the west, in the south, in the north and in the east of this area. Now, the test for him is not what he believed when he was in opposition. The test for him is how he will conduct his relations regarding the Palestinians, with the PA, with Hamas, with other countries which surround us, our neighbors, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates.

*     *

I’ll tell you how [Bennett] will market his Palestinian policies to the American public, including the Jews. This is a big issue, and he has to handle it. . . Our President [Reuven Rivlin, came to Washington last week] with a big message. I believe I know most of it, or the jist of it. What he [said] to Biden is, Israel looks at the United States policies in the Middle East and Israel understands that the United States is going back home. Not in terms of foreign policy, but in terms of military presence. The general idea is to have fewer and fewer American soldiers in the area and less and less military power in the area. Obama started it, Trump continued the same pattern, and Biden wants to because this is what the American public opinion wants him to do. What Israel can suggest in this dramatic historical crossroad, is to replace the United States. Not with Israeli soldiers in Iraq, or in Afghanistan chas v’chalila [god forbid]. But with the military power or the power of Israel to become a deterrence towards any Iranian aggressive move toward all these countries, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and so on. What Bennett is trying with the Americans is, look, we have a major role in the Middle East, not only when it comes to Israeli interests, but also when it comes to American interests. You can support us in the diplomatic world. You can support us regarding the Palestinians. . . Maybe you can help us in supplying more arms, more precise bombs. We have a long list of what we need, but Bennett in a way continues what Netanyahu started with our positive approach to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and so on. 

[But] there is a key difference. He doesn’t want to confront the American administration. He wants to cooperate. Now, it also includes Iran. Regarding Iran, the new [Israeli] government looks at the nuclear agreement with Iran in very negative terms [in terms of] Israel’s objectives. But when Netanyahu wanted to somehow cancel the agreement by recruiting the Republicans to do it, the result was that Iran came closer to the bomb than before the [agreement] was signed.

Now, we understand that Biden is going to have an agreement with the Iranians. What the government is trying to do now is to convince the Americans to try to improve the terms of the agreement, and to sign it for a longer term. This is what you see. A lot of action. Our chief of staff was in Washington this week. Our president [came] with this message.

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