Former Israeli PM Naftali Bennett coming to speak in Canada this week despite a pending court case accusing him of being a war criminal

Naftali bennett Heather Reisman
Israel's former prime minister Naftali Bennett is headlining an event for the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre on Wednesday June 14 in Toronto, where he will be interviewed by Indigo books founder Heather Reisman. (FSWC)

Israel’s former prime minister, Naftali Bennett, says he has purposely taken steps to keep a lower profile ahead of his speech in Canada this Wednesday, June 14. He hasn’t posted anything to his half-million followers on Twitter or on Facebook since June 3, and he hasn’t updated his popular YouTube channel for even longer.

Bennett also declined a request by The CJN Daily to do a podcast interview from his home near Tel Aviv ahead of the event. He agreed only to appear in a print story in The CJN in advance of his appearance in Toronto.

He wouldn’t explain why.

But now it appears it could have something to do with efforts to have Israel’s 13th leader banned from entering Canada for his scheduled talk on “Israel at 75” on behalf of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Pro-Palestinian groups want Bennett barred

A group of Palestinian-rights organizations based in Canada filed motions several weeks ago asking Canada’s Border Services Agency to turn Bennett away, on the grounds that he has been involved in alleged war crimes against the Palestinians. Their lawyers also applied to the Federal Court.

At issue are Israeli settlements built in the West Bank and the Golan Heights since 1967, and the motions point to Bennett’s stance on increasing Jewish settlements, which the lawsuit alleges violates both Canadian and United Nations’ policies. At least one of the organizations counts Jewish Canadians among their members.

Bennett has not commented on the pending court case. His spokesperson said he is still planning to attend in person.

For their part, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center called it “a baseless smear campaign as part of a larger effort to vilify and delegitimize the State of Israel and intimidate Canadian Jews.“

In a written statement, Michael Levitt, the president and CEO of the Jewish human rights and advocacy group, said the former prime minister actually formed the most diverse government in Israel’s history, which included an Arab party in the ruling coalition.

“Canada’s Jewish community will not be silenced, nor will we yield to outrageous, defamatory actions by fringe anti-Israel activists,” Levitt said.

It’s not clear whether the Federal Court motion will even be heard before Bennett’s booking at a Toronto-area event space, where he is set to be interviewed by Heather Reisman, the founder of the Indigo book store chain.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not respond to The CJN by deadline. They are holding a media conference Tuesday to discuss the case.

Anniversary of Bennett’s national unity government

Bennett’s appearance comes exactly two years to the week that he defeated his former mentor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and was sworn in on June 13, 2021 to lead Israel’s fractious government during the height of the pandemic.

Bennett, head of the right-leaning Yamina Party, put together an improbable eight-party national unity coalition. The coalition also included the Ra’am party of Arab Islamists. It was the first time the right-wing Religious Zionists were shut out of government.

As part of their deal, Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid pledged to alternate holding the prime minister’s job. Then the duo went to work to tackle much-delayed national issues such as health care, Arab crime and the Israeli economy.

Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid (Credit: Yesh Atid)
Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid (Credit: Yesh Atid)

Bennett’s term lasted one year. 

His slim majority collapsed on June 20, 2022 over ideological differences about extending a two-tiered legal system in the West Bank.

Bennett said he would not run again.

Five months later, Israel held yet another national election, its fifth in three years, and voters returned Netanyahu as the prime minister in early December 2022.

Since leaving politics, Bennett has been on the speaking circuit. He spoke at Duke University, and he sat down with a popular Israeli podcaster for a five-hour long interview. He was on CNN International in May, and his appearance went viral after Bennett rebuked journalist Isa Soares for accusing Israel of purposely aiming to kill Palestinian children.

“I hope people don’t forget that our first duty is to defend the lives of our citizens which are deliberately targeted by our enemies,” Bennett told The CJN.

More national unity governments needed

Bennett intends to outline his vision of the current turbulent political situation in Israel as the country recently marked its 75th birthday, and to deliver his prescription for the future.

He has not stated publicly whether Israel’s future includes his own political comeback.

For the time being, he said he is content to spend time with his family in Ra’anana near Tel Aviv, do some work with Israeli high-tech companies and give motivational speeches abroad. He also meets regularly with Israeli teens who are either about to enter the Israel Defense Forces or have just enlisted.

In Bennett’s view, the biggest threat to Israel right now is of the country’s own making, rather than from exterior forces such as Iran or Hezbollah or from the rise of antisemitism around the world.

“Internal fighting, full stop,” he said, referring to the current political protests over proposed reforms to the Israeli judicial system which are on the Netanyahu government’s agenda.

Bennett is critical of how “horrendously” the reforms have been handled by the current administration, which he feels avoided any attempt to build consensus but instead worked to foment arguments and strife.

While he said most Israelis agree that reforms are necessary, in his view what’s needed is another moderate, national unity-style government. This requires all sides to shelve their most hard-line ideological requests. He encourages leaders to adhere to his own “70 percent rule” approach.

How it works is: as long as 70 percent of the Israeli people agree on 70 percent of the issues, then politicians can set aside the other 30 percent which are more long-term challenges to tackle anyway, such as Israel-Palestine.

“Let’s fix the things that need fixing, for example, the cost of living, huge economic gaps, Arab crime which is hurting the Arabs immensely, horrible traffic jams and lack of good public transportation,” Bennett said. “We’ve got enough problems that we all agree [on] so let’s just fix them and I think that’s the secret forward.”

Family ties to Canada

Born in Haifa to non-religious American parents who immigrated from California to Israel after the Six-Day War, Bennett spent a couple of his earliest years in Canada. The family moved to Montreal after his late father Jim took a job as an emissary for the Technion university.

It was in Canada where the future prime minister began his journey towards becoming a more religiously observant Jew. He wears a knitted kippah, and was the first Israeli leader in history to do so.

“They wanted us to retain our Hebrew and since at home we didn’t speak Hebrew, they wanted us to go to a Jewish school, but only for the Hebrew, not the Judaism, because they were very, very secular,” Bennett recalled, referring to why his parents sent him and his two older brothers Asher and Daniel to an Orthodox school in Montreal.

While he doesn’t remember the name of the school nor where it was located, Bennett does remember snow piled so high “you couldn’t open the front door.” He also likes to tell the story of how he came home one day, sporting a big kippah.

Bennett also credits the friendship and support of several Montreal Jewish families, including the late Rabbi Mordechai Glick and his wife Nina, who now lives in New Jersey and remains close to Bennett’s family.

Upon the family’s return to Israel, Bennett completed his army service and then studied law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He worked as a technology entrepreneur in Israel and later New York, until 2005, when Bennett sold his firm for millions. Now flush with cash, he returned to his native country the following year and became Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-hand man.

Bennett spent the next dozen years in and out of government, including representing Israel’s West Bank settlements as their chief lobbyist. He entered government in 2012, again with Netanyahu. He was appointed to several cabinet posts, including defence and also the Diaspora portfolio.

Feels responsible for Israel and all Jews

When Bennett became prime minister a decade later, he said, he felt responsible not just for Jewish and Arab residents of Israel, but also for the Jewish communities in the world. Even now, out of office, he still feels Israel must stand up for Diaspora Jews when they face antisemitism, and to combat the normalization of Jew-hatred in popular culture.

“But first and foremost, we have to speak up and when something happens in any country, we have to get involved, including sometimes the direct assist, [and also] certainly being in touch with the relevant government. We have to stand up for the Jews,” he said.

Bennett is aware of the deep concerns which many Canadian Jews have about the current direction of the Israeli government, including Netanyahu’s embrace of extreme right-wing politicians such as Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. These concerns also cover: Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, what to do about the West Bank, and the growing influence of haredi Jewish leaders on Israeli life, including the stalled expansion of a pledge which Bennett himself initiated to broaden non-Orthodox and egalitarian worship for Jews at the Western Wall.

“There is a growing rift, not to say chasm between Israelis and Jewish communities around the world, and we have to close that gap and that’s why coming to Toronto and the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre is meaningful to me,” Bennett said.

He considers Canada and the Canadian government a friend of Israel, despite recent signals that the federal Liberals may be ready to review the long-standing policy on supporting a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. A federal House of Commons committee voted in May to begin holding hearings on the issue in the near future.

Canadian Global Affairs Minister Melanie Joly tweeted her concern earlier this year about Israeli punitive measures on Palestinian terrorists, and more recently, concern about Israeli troops raiding the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Canada has also called on the Israeli government to slow down or halt judicial reforms.

“Our friends will continue to be friends, but that doesn’t mean that we will accept that unfair treatment in a world where I think we’re always bending over backward to fight our wars in a moral way,” Bennett said.

How to reduce terrorism

Bennett doubled down on some of his proudest achievements as prime minister, including loosening Israeli policy which kept Palestinian Gazans from working in Israel.

Bennett permitted nearly 20,000 Gaza residents to cross into Israel for employment, where they earned ten times higher wages than in the Gaza Strip, and were able to support large and extended families. While the move was controversial, Bennett is convinced it ultimately lowered the temperature and prevented Hamas from launching attacks on Israel from Gaza during his year in office.

“The year that I ran Israel was the quietest year in the past generation,” he said, in contrast to the current deadly violence that flared up around Ramadan this year with car rammings and ambushes of Jewish settlers and shootings, even in Tel Aviv. “It was a year basically without rockets.”

While giving no quarter to terrorists, Bennett felt his coalition’s opening of financial opportunities for Palestinians from Gaza served as “a very significant muffle on terror” because Hamas was convinced to not “mess around with us” since if they do, “all these people will lose their jobs.”

Bennett also believes the world needs a strong Israel. He sees the current political protests not as a weakness but as a strength. Despite 24 weeks of street demonstrations by Israelis opposed to the Netanyahu government, the former prime minister is optimistic about the country’s future.

In particular, he points to the announcement of a hiatus on the judicial reform bills, over the recent Passover holiday break.

“You know, democracy has prevailed in Israel, and that’s certainly good news.”

Disinformation dangerous

He laments that Israel continues to receive unfair coverage in the media and other public spheres, including when CNN interviewer Christiane Amanpour described the execution by a Palestinian gunman of three members of the Dee family, a mother and her two daughters, as a “shootout.” The journalist later had to apologize. Rabbi Leo Dee was considering suing the news network for over a billion dollars.

Although Bennett himself boasts a large following of his own on social media, he sees disinformation and false content as serious threats to the Jewish people and to the Jewish state.

In recent months, Bennett personally fought back against allegations published by a rabbi, Ronen Shaulov, who falsely accused the Israeli politician of not being truly Jewish, a slur which Bennett said also deeply wounded his mother.

The rabbi, a popular live streamer with hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, declared the Bennetts had converted to Judaism. He also made derogatory comments about the politician selling Israel out to non-Jews. Last winter, Bennett asked an Israeli court for 1 million NIS in damages.

On May 24, Bennett won his defamation suit. Shaulov was forced to apologise for spreading the false allegations widely in his sermons.

“I’m fed up with allowing lies to continue thriving in the era that many call the era of post-truth,” Bennett said, explaining why he punched back. “I think we have to fight for truth.”

He said the court-ordered fine is being donated to an Israeli charity, likely to lone soldiers or bereaved families of fallen Israeli soldiers.

Half-jokingly, Bennett suggests one ancient remedy exists for protecting young people from falling victim to online disinformation and even curing their addiction to screen time. Once a week, on Fridays, people put their iPhones aside, and even if they don’t attend synagogue, they eat a meal with their kids.

“The startup is called Shabbat. It’s existed for about 3,000 years and it’s an amazing Jewish startup.”