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The West Block Transcript – Episode 31, Season 13

Mercedes Stephenson, The West Block. Global News

THE WEST BLOCK

Episode 31, Season 13

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests:

Naftali Bennett, Former Israeli Prime Minister

Steven Chase, The Globe and Mail

Vina Nadjibulla, Asia Pacific Foundation

Location:

Ottawa Studio

 

Mercedes Stephenson: As tensions in the Middle East edge even higher, one former Israeli prime minister tells us he believes the time for Israel to strike Iran may be coming.

I’m Mercedes Stephenson. The West Block starts now.

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IRAN LAUNCHED  A RETALIATORY STRIKE AGAINST ISRAEL OVERNIGHT THAT COULD SEND THE REGION INTO EVEN *GREATER* TURMOIL. A FORMER ISRAELI LEADER TELLS US HIS THOUGHTS ON IRAN.

At one time Naftali Bennett ran against Benjamin Netanyahu and won. In an exclusive interview, the former Israeli prime minister also gives us his insights on Gaza and his disappointment in Canada.

Plus, it doesn’t get any more high profile than this: the sitting prime minister testifying at the foreign interference inquiry. It was supposed to wrap the latest stage of the inquiry but instead, had the complete opposite effect.

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It’s been more than six months since the Hamas attack on Israel, sparking the ongoing war in Gaza.

Now Iran has launched a historic first attack on Israel. as the world watches nervously at what could happen next.

IT’S BEEN TWO WEEKS SINCE ISRAEL’S SUSPECTED DEADLY HIT ON IRAN’S CONSULAR BUILDING IN SYRIA.

Now Mideast tensions are growing greater still, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s time as prime minister may be running out.

In 2021, our next guest formed a coalition to successfully topple Netanyahu. Naftali Bennett was a special forces commando. Then he was Netanyahu’s senior aid, before becoming the Israeli prime minister in 2021.

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I sat down with Naftali Bennett on Friday.

Naftali Bennett, thank you so much for sitting down with us. It’s really a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk to you about this situation that the whole world is watching so closely.

Naftali Bennett, Former Israeli Prime Minister: Thank you for having me here.

Mercedes Stephenson: It is a very tenuous time right now in Israel. There’s questions about what’s going to happen with Iran, who has been increasingly bombastic in light of the strike that Israel took against their consulate in Syria. There’s been suggestions by the Iranians that they are willing to strike Israeli territory. Do you believe that that is a risk?

Naftali Bennett, Former Israeli Prime Minister: It may be. I have to be very clear about this. Iran has been attacking Israeli for the past 30 years, and especially in the past six months, through its proxies. Iran is like an octopus of terror whose head is in Tehran, but then it sends its tentacles into Lebanon with Hezbollah terror organization, into Gaza with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and they’ve been shooting tens of thousands of rockets in Israel. So if anything, the—that killing of commanders of Iranian terror group should be considered that is a small retaliation to a lot of what has happened. So, you know we’ll see where things go. And Israel is ready for this.

Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think the risk is of a direct with Iran? Not the proxies of, as you say, Hezbollah and Hamas that have been going on forever, but direct conflict between, in this case, Israel and Iran, and quite possibly the United States backing Israel?

Naftali Bennett, Former Israeli Prime Minister: Well actually it would be detrimental to Iran because Iran, until now, has enjoyed fighting the war—a one-sided war. So we’re on a boxing ring and one side is hitting the other and the other is not responding, being Iran hitting Israel. If they directly attack Israel, clearly Israel will retaliate and what I’ve learnt is that Iran—Iranians said the regime there are very incompetent and corrupt and lousy regime. The people despise it, they don’t like incurring losses and they have a lot to lose.

Mercedes Stephenson: How confident are you that the American security guarantee would involve militarily, not just with weapons but fighting for Israel?

Naftali Bennett, Former Israeli Prime Minister: We never expect, ask, and never had anyone fight for us. We’ll do the fighting for us. We—Israel always fights for itself, by itself. We do need, or expect the world to have our back, because we’re fighting an axis of very evil organizations: Hezbollah, Iran. They’re in tandem with North Korea, with Russia, China. They’re sort of this axis and we’re doing the fighting. So we don’t expect people to send soldiers to fight our wars.

Mercedes Stephenson: You mentioned the head of the octopus being in Tehran, and obviously it’s very rare to strike there directly. I am interested to know if you think that’s what the Israeli government should be doing.

Naftali Bennett, Former Israeli Prime Minister: If we are attacked, and we are already been attacked by the proxies, I definitely think that Iran should directly pay the price in Tehran. I also think that the free world can—should engage in an ongoing soft campaign to collapse the Iranian regime.

Mercedes Stephenson: Are you worried about where that goes? I think back to Libya. I think about Afghanistan, Iraq, other regimes that had horrific human rights abuses. Abused their populations, and when these dictators who were no question terrible leaders were removed, there was a power vacuum that fed other proxy groups, terror groups that then carried out attacks on America, on Israel. How do you handle that?

Naftali Bennett, Former Israeli Prime Minister: Well there’s a big difference here. Iran today, not in the future, Iran today is already the centre, the global centre of terror export. So it’s not as if now it’s just an issue of human rights domestically in Iran. They are spreading terror into Europe, into America. The Mossad many times has provided information that thwarted attacks in Western nations. So, it’s as bad as it can get and they’re trying to obtain a nuclear bomb. It would be a much better life in Iran and outside if we had different leadership.

Mercedes Stephenson: I have to ask you the slightly jaded question, but we’re both political animals so I think it’s a logical one. Some people believe that BB carried out the strike—Prime Minister Netanyahu—in Syria as a way to trigger Iran and to ensure the Americans would have to back the war cabin at a time when President Biden had been publicly criticizing it. Do you think that this was a move by Prime Minister Netanyahu to shore up his domestic and international support? Or do you think that it was a legitimate military strike with no other motivation?

Naftali Bennett, Former Israeli Prime Minister It was definitely a legitimate strike. When someone—imagine, Mercedes—someone’s just sending a bunch of thugs to hit you and hit you and hit you, and he sends the thugs and you’re getting beaten by them. At some point, you want to hit back. You’re not going to fight the thugs he’s sending. Fight back the guy who’s sending those thugs, the head of the octopus. I think this should be a common thing that is done until they stop messing around with the entire Middle East. This is crazy.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

Mercedes Stephenson: Let’s talk about the situation in Gaza. We are now more than six months in, a tremendous number of lives have been lost, especially by Gazans, largely women and children. Israel is under tremendous criticism. Hamas, no question, uses people as human shields. There is now apparently, we believe, two to three from what we’re hearing from intelligence, Hamas brigades that remain. What does the future of this campaign look like?

Naftali Bennett, Former Israeli Prime Minister: According to Hamas, which I don’t believe them, but let’s even walk along with them. They say there is 33 thousand Gazans dead. We know that 14 thousand of them are Hamas fighters. So you’re left with 19 thousand. We’ve dropped millions of leaflets, tens of millions of text messages to evacuate areas. We are doing more than any other country in history of warfare to reduce collateral damage.

Mercedes Stephenson: There is tremendous devastation no matter now careful Israel tries to be and I think that you now have a bit of an information operations problem with the strike on the world food kitchen. People questioning your targeting, questioning how careful it is, questioning whether there are the mechanisms in place to protect civilians as much as possible. No matter what, there has been tremendous suffering and there’s a risk of radicalization there, radicalizing the next generation, which is what we saw in Afghanistan with the Taliban, what we’ve seen in so many other places. How do you move forward in a way that carries out your military goals without risking long term, very serious guerrilla warfare that could carry on for generations from children who remember what is happening here and all they know is they’ve lost their parents? They’ve lost their loved ones, and that’s going to affect how they perceive Israel.

Naftali Bennett, Former Israeli Prime Minister: There already is widespread hate towards Israel because I’ll remind you October 7th happened before the war and happened in a background of relative economic prosperity in Gaza. So the source of the hate is that they’re telling their children, teaching their children that Jews are pigs and the Satan, and will poison and brainwash your people for decades. They go out and rape women, murder babies, burn whole families. So let’s not mistake the cause and effect.

Regarding the world kitchen, world central kitchen, again, this was a mistake, but we’re being held to such a double standard here. It is so unfair. Why suddenly is there a double standard when Israel mistakenly in war, kills seven, eight workers. We have no interest to do it. It’s not what Israel’s about. We have a citizen’s army. We don’t have a professional army; it’s our children fighting there. So I can only see a double standard that I think the source is very deep and goes centuries back.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Can I ask you, do you feel that source is antisemitism?

Naftali Bennett, Former Israeli Prime Minister: Absolutely. Absolutely. What other reason will the world ignore and accept mistakes that happen in war because war is a terrible thing. But when it’s Israel, the whole world condemns and the whole world wants to take this tragic accident and use it as a reason to prevent Israel from protecting themselves. That is a double standard and I don’t accept it.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know you are very busy and we don’t have much time, but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you your thoughts on Canada’s stance on the war.

Naftali Bennett, Former Israeli Prime Minister: I’m disappointed. I think Canada, you know, taking a negative stance both in the terminology and the embargo and refunding UNRWA, which has proven to be a direct supporter of Hamas, having 12 UNRWA workers that they were part of the massacre. They murdered and massacred Jews, yet Canada would continue the funding. So it’s disappointing. We expect friends to be with us not when it’s easy but when it’s tough. And make no mistake, Mercedes, we are fighting the war of the West. Because if we don’t win, every terror organization on earth is going to adopt this tactic of embedding itself within civilians and then raping and murdering Europeans, Americans and getting away with it because there’s a new method that you’re not allowed to fight it. Do you understand how vital it is that the world supports us in defeating this total evil? And I think it’s a mistake.

Mercedes Stephenson: Naftali Bennett, a passionate defence of Israel. Thank you for joining us today. We appreciate it.

Naftali Bennett, Former Israeli Prime Minister: Thank you, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the battle over intelligence briefings at the foreign interference inquiry.

 

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Mercedes Stephenson: It was another bombshell week at the foreign interference inquiry as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his inner circle answered questions about their handling of China’s medaling in the last two federal elections.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We have emphasized throughout this process that the every briefing I’ve ever got from all my intelligence and security experts is that those elections were indeed free and fair, and nothing we have seen and heard despite, yes, attempts by foreign states to interfere.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Revelations about the prime minister’s intelligence briefings led to another round of questioning for CSIS director David Vigneault on Friday. Vigneault made it clear the prime minister was briefed on foreign interference allegations and he made a point of defending his organization.

David Vigneault, CSIS Director: “So I think it’s important that we understand that intelligence is a little bit like a puzzle. Sometimes we have a very clear picture of the puzzle, but I think what is important to remember is that this is done by a professional, trained intelligence analysts and professionals.”

Mercedes Stephenson: To dig into all of this, I’m joined by Steven Chase, senior parliamentary reporter with The Globe and Mail; and Vina Nadjibulla, vice-president of research and strategy with the Asia Pacific Foundation.

Thank you both for joining us today. Quite a week of testimony, all kinds of revelations which not always lined up with one another. Steve, let’s start with you. You were there watching this in-person all week. What stood out?

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Steven Chase, The Globe and Mail: The government has made a message track this week of saying that essentially we weren’t warned of things. We didn’t know about things. This is a surprise to us. At the final day of the testimony, which is David Vigneault, the CSIS director, I like to think of it as David Vigneault rebuttal hour. So he comes on and he spends and hour saying yes this particular briefing I might not have mentioned that particular phrase, but I’ve made it clear because I made that particular message clear to the government in other briefings to other ministers, even in public speeches. And at the end of it, again this is a week in which Justin Trudeau casts doubts or casts doubts on the reliability of CSIS evidence, or sorry, CSIS intelligence, David Vigneault made a point of defending his organization today in saying we do very good work and I’m very proud of the work we do.

Mercedes Stephenson: Vina, I know that, you know you really have your finger on the pulse around this: issues with China, the world of intelligence and espionage and what’s going on. What is your impression of what CSIS does know about the situation and whether or not they would be transmitting that to especially the Prime Minister’s Office?

Vina Nadjibulla, Asia Pacific Foundation: Mercedes, you’re absolutely right that we saw quite a bit of interesting discussion between what the office of the prime minister was saying and then also what Mr. Vigneault was saying. But I think the important thing here is that foreign interference is such a challenging issue to deal with that we need a whole of government approach and then a whole of society approach. So the fact that we haven’t yet managed a whole of government approach and an understanding between our elected officials, between our civil servants, and between now intelligence officials in terms of the nature of the threat is concerning. I mean essentially what we saw this week was that clearly, our intelligence services believe the foreign interference is a grave threat. They even the used the word existential threat and that wasn’t really the impression that one was given if listening to the testimony of other officials this week. So, I think the challenge for us is to really come to a common understanding of really, the gravity of this issue and the way that our allies in the U.S. and Australia and the U.K. have. And then from there, build a whole of society approach, which is really where our foundation comes in.

Mercedes Stephenson: Vina, did it strike you when you heard the officials from the Prime Minister’s Office saying they were aware of some of this foreign interference. They were aware of some of the allegations, including allegations around the PRC trying to bus people in to vote for a particular nomination. They didn’t think it was a high enough bar to bring into question somebody’s nomination. Did that strike you as reasonable or as too dismissive of how significant that might be?

Vina Nadjibulla, Asia Pacific Foundation: I think it’s misunderstanding that the challenge from PRC is not one that we necessarily need to adjudicate in a court of law, where you need to have evidence to be able to have beyond the shadow of a doubt and so forth. The kind of interference and threats that China is engaged in is much more sophisticated. It’s constantly changing. There’s a lot more nuance, and you have to be able to see it in its totality rather than approach it from a very high bar of a legal, evidentiary nature. And, I mean, especially when it comes to the diaspora community, when it comes to kind of relational dimension of this, right? What we know from the community rather than from intelligence that is much more sort of intercepted through communication, one has to have a different bar. And the seriousness of the issue cannot be determined on the basis of one riding, or one bus, or three busses, however [many] busses there might have been. It much more needs to be viewed in a totality of it and from a perspective of what is China trying to achieve? What game are they playing, and how pragmatic and how adaptive they have been, and the fact that we need to do the same thing in our response and building resilience in a whole of society kind of way, especially with the diaspora community.
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Mercedes Stephenson: Steve, the argument that we kind of heard from PMO officials is we didn’t know, or from the prime minister himself saying he didn’t have a chance to read all those documents. And then on Friday, he turned around and said well I do read what’s in front of me. Of course, the Conservatives have been making much of that, saying does he or doesn’t he read his intelligence? Does he or doesn’t he take Canadian bureaucrats seriously who this government built their reputation on saying unlike Stephen Harper, we’re going to listen to what the experts and government have to say. When you take a look overall at this week, what’s your interpretation of how the government views CSIS intelligence and the credibility of their arguments?

Steven Chase, The Globe and Mail: I think the government views CSIS intelligence with a pound of salt. They do not seem to be a party that is going to rely on CSIS testimony. And in fact, if you listen to the testimony this week, it’s clear that when they started to build an infrastructure to fight interference, they thought it was going to be Russia and they thought it was going to be disinformation from Russia. And so they built a, you know, a line, a defence line to deal with that and we’re not really ready to accept the possibility that there was serious Chinese government interference here. And so I think they—I would describe them as reluctant to accept what CSIS is telling them.

Mercedes Stephenson: Vina, is your sense that there is still that same reluctance? Or has this, frankly, having these documents forced into the open, that none of us would have ever actually been able to see publicly before, if not for this public inquiry, changed how this government and future governments acknowledge it? Or is this going to kind of be swept under the rug by politicians who look the other way regardless of their party, if it’s convenient for them or advantages them at the time?

Vina Nadjibulla, Asia Pacific Foundation: Well I hope not. I hope you’re absolutely right that because we now have seen the types of documents have had these hours of conversation, which all have been public and I think that is the value of this public inquiry, now that we’re finally having it. My hope is that it would allow us to prepare better for future elections, understanding that while we are trying to figure out what happened in 2019 and 2021 election, we also have to prepare for the next election, which is now just around the corner. We need to get away from partisanship and scoring partisan points and to see this as a grave threat to our national security, to our way of life, to our institution that it really is. And particularly with China, as Steve mentioned, it’s a very different kind of threat. Russia is interested in disinformation, which is about undermining overall trust. China is much more corrosive in its approach and much more sophisticated and pragmatic in its approach, and we do need to change how we view it as well, and that can only happen if there is real leadership and there is openness and transparency, so the kind of the sunlight that we’ve been talking about. And at the end of the day, there’ll also have to be some costs. I think which was really concerning today was there seems to be kind of an understanding and the director of CSIS kept referring to this that it’s a sort of high—low-cost and high opportunity target. We really need to make sure that that is no longer the case. And certainly in advance of the next election, Canada cannot be seen as a high opportunity country with no cost to this kind of activity.

Mercedes Stephenson: Interesting. And that’s all the time we have for this panel, but I know we’ll be talking much more about foreign interference as the commissioner prepares her final report that’s coming out at the beginning of May. Thank you both.

Vina Nadjibulla, Asia Pacific Foundation: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, was the defence review worth the wait? You’ll find out what I think.

 

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Mercedes Stephenson: Now for one last thing…

After two years of waiting, the Trudeau government finally released its vision for the Canadian Armed Forces. It’s a shift in tone for the government, recognizing Canada’s need not only to protect our own territory but also to be able to strike enemies abroad. It also includes some much needed cash to the tune of $8 billion over five years.

But the policy is still slow to spend, with most of the money coming well after the next election or even the election after that, something sources say is designed to keep the deficit down with the federal budget coming on Tuesday.

And the document does not lay out a path to the NATO 2 per cent of GDP pledge that Canada has made.

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There’s also a laundry list of personnel changes and equipment updates and acquisitions, with no timeline, money assigned, or guarantees that that equipment will be bought, like submarines.

Contrast Canada’s approach to that of our allies. Take a look at Australia’s defence spending. In February of 2024, they raised it by an additional $9.95 billion in Canadian dollars over the next decade. Their defence spending will rise to 2.4 per cent of their GDP by early 2030. Or, the U.K., for that matter: newly released U.K. statistics show the defence spending topped $42.93 billion in Canadian dollars. Or even just compare it against what’s going on here at home. What the government spent on housing in their pre-budget announcements is more than triple what they are promising to spend on defence. Despite the fact housing is not the feds job; well defence is their single most important responsibility.

 

That’s our show for today. We’ll see you next week. Thanks for watching.

 

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