Politics - Naftali Bennett

Naftali Bennett  credit: Gil Gibli
Naftali Bennett credit: Gil Gibli

To become prime minister, Bennett broke Israel's political mold. Whether temporarily or permanently remains to be seen.

On the night of June 2, half an hour before midnight, with mandate given him to form a government about to expire, Yair Lapid called the president. With his mobile phone on speaker, Lapid informed Rivlin that he’d "done it". Sitting beside him, listening to the conversation, were the two people who had made this moment possible: Yamina (New Right) leader Naftali Bennett, and Ra'am (United Arab List) leader Mansour Abbas. The two crossed a historic bridge from opposite sides to meet in the middle - a middle-Israel called Yair Lapid.

Throughout the last election campaign, Bennett persisted in refusing to be counted in the right-wing's coalition calculations and to declare support for Netanyahu. "I’m the only one who can stop a fifth election from happening," he promised on the eve of the March election and made his intentions clear: "We will build a government of national change. It may include parties that are not from the Right. I have no problem with that, as long as I am prime minister."

Just over two weeks after Lapid's announcement, and almost three months after the fourth election, Bennett - with six seats - was sworn in as prime minister. In the background, members of the freshly-minted opposition cried out "crook" and "traitor," a reminder that the circuitous path taken towards forming the government he now headed involved breaching vows and breaking election promises.

Of all Netanyahu's opponents, it was his protégé, his onetime chief of staff, who now replaced him as prime minister. How did it come to pass that Naftali Bennett would be the one to finally send Benjamin Netanyahu to the Knesset backbenches, away from the conference room table, and the centers of influence and decision-making?

Many see his choice to break away from the Netanyahu bloc - formerly the natural home for the right-wing and religious - as a cynical, opportunistic move. An act of fraud. But Naftali Bennett is not a crook. The process of forming a government under his leadership is, for him, an idealistic personal sacrifice, the relinquishment or shifting of his stances and values for the sake of releasing a country trapped in a mad "Just Bibi/Just not Bibi" maelstrom. The prime minister's bureau? Merely a bonus on top of the successful exit. And that, perhaps, is the real story of this whole confusing time: opportunism draped in ideology and values perceived as personal ambition.

In a background briefing during one election campaign, Bennett termed himself and his loyal political partner Ayelet Shaked "experts in changing perception." And he has indeed changed. As a member of the religious Zionist movement - a constituency trying to break free of its sectoral chains - Bennett has finally managed to liberate himself from the stereotypical labels "Far Right," "Religious," "Reckless and Zealous." To live together, all partners in the diverse coalition led by Bennett must alter their viewpoints a little. Bennett, devoid of significant political power vis-à-vis his partners, leads the government like a board chairman. As in the happy high-tech days when he headed Cyota, Bennett has taken the role of CEO, a team of partners by his side.

"When you enter this room, you leave politics aside," he said in describing taking on the country’s most challenging job. The depiction infuriated his critics who viewed it as proof of a move to the political left and alienation from the stance of the Right.

Just before meeting newly elected US President Joe Biden at the White House for the first time, Bennett outlined his positions to "The New York Times." They have not changed: No to establishing a Palestinian state; yes to construction of settlements; no to reopening the US Consulate in East Jerusalem. His actions in recent weeks also demonstrate that he is not afraid of a collegial confrontation with the Biden administration over the Iranian nuclear program. Contrary to the claims and suspicions from the political Right, he is not rushing to sell Israel down the river.

In 2021, Naftali Bennett changed the old divisions of Israel’s political camps, between right-wing and left-wing, perhaps forever. It remains to be seen whether the public will also be convinced and change as well.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 30, 2021.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2021.

Naftali Bennett  credit: Gil Gibli
Naftali Bennett credit: Gil Gibli
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