WASHINGTON (JTA) — Ahead of his first meeting as prime minister with President Joe Biden, Naftali Bennett of Israel said he would neither annex West Bank territory nor allow it to become a Palestinian state.
Bennett told The New York Times in an interview published Tuesday — two days before his arrival in Washington — that the left-to-right composition of his coalition government meant that drastic diplomatic moves in either direction were off the table for now.
“This government will neither annex nor form a Palestinian state, everyone gets that,” he said. “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’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, nearly triggered a crisis in 2020 between Israel and congressional Democrats when the party — including some of its most pro-Israel members — warned him that annexing parts of the West Bank would damage U.S.-Israel relations. Netanyahu had been contemplating annexation under the terms of a peace agreement advanced by the Trump administration but rejected by the Palestinians.
Bennett said he would continue “natural growth” expansion of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Israeli leader would not say whether he would attempt to block Biden’s plans to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem dedicated to the Palestinians that had been shut down by President Donald Trump.
He did say that Jerusalem would only ever be Israel’s capital — his one note of stridency in the interview. Even the Trump plan did not count out a Palestinian capital in the city’s suburbs.
“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” Bennett said. “It’s not the capital of other nations.”
Bennett, like Netanyahu, opposes Biden’s efforts to reenter the Iran nuclear deal — Trump dropped out of the 2015 agreement in 2018 — but said he would make his case to Biden without ramping up tensions.
“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, he told The Times.
Netanyahu openly confronted the Obama administration when it struck the deal and infuriated Democrats by accepting an invitation from Republicans to speak out in Congress against President Barack Obama’s Iran policies. Bennett said he would avoid such confrontations.
“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 said.