Returning Sunday morning from his dramatic Shabbat trip to Moscow and then on Saturday night to Berlin, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett convened the weekly cabinet meeting a couple of hours later and explained the purpose of his journey.
“I went there to assist the dialogue between all of the sides, of course with the blessing and encouragement of all players,” he said at the start of the meeting. “Even if the chance is not great – as soon as there is even a small opening, and we have access to all sides and the capability – I see this as our moral obligation to make every effort. As long as the candle is burning, we must make an effort, and perhaps it will yet be possible to act.”
Although he did not spell it out in his opening comments, Bennett is surely aware that his thrusting Israel into the middle of a crisis not its own has both historic possibilities but also huge risks.
The possibilities are that as one of only a few Western leaders with good ties with both Russia and Ukraine, Bennett may indeed help broker some kind of deal that will end the fighting and the carnage in Ukraine. That is something that would significantly improve Israel’s stature and image on the world stage: Both Russia and Ukraine would applaud, and the US and the West would be grateful and indebted to Bennett and Israel for staving off a wider conflagration.
The risks are that the Bennett mediation falls flat, and it transpires that Russian President Vladimir Putin was merely using the premier as a way of signaling that he is interested in solving the conflict, when all he really wanted was more time to gobble up Ukraine. In this case, Israel will lose stature in the eyes of the world stage and be seen in Washington as a Putin stooge artfully played by the Russian leader.
Though Bennett’s shuttle diplomacy holds out risks and possibilities for Israel, politically, the journey – even undertaken on Shabbat – looks increasingly like a win-win for the prime minister.
Eyal Hulata, Bennett’s national security adviser, was a driving force behind the trip, working behind the scenes with all the relevant actors to put the meetings in place. That being the case, the decision to go was based on diplomatic – not political – considerations. Hulata is a diplomatic/national security maven, not a political one.
Nonetheless, in the recesses of every politician’s mind is how everything plays domestically. For Bennett, he really has nowhere to go but up at home, and this visit can help make him look more prime ministerial by clothing him in the mantle of a world statesman.
BECAUSE OF the way Bennett got into office, because he only commands the allegiance of six Knesset seats, because the coalition does not bend to his will, because the opposition is continuously pounding him as “fake” and as a “scoundrel,” Bennett has failed to take off in the polls even after taking his seat in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Conventional wisdom was that Yamina’s poll numbers would rise once Bennett took office and nothing horrible transpired. Well, he’s now been in office for nine months, nothing terrible has happened to the country in the interim, yet his poll numbers are not rising but sinking. The latest major poll, taken by Direct Polls on February 15, had his party winning only four seats – three fewer than the last elections – were voting held today.
Bennett, in a Channel 13 interview Thursday with the entertainer Tzvika Hadar, acknowledged that his numbers were not taking off. But there was a positive side to this, Bennett said in a creative take.
“It is a problem,” he acknowledged of the poll numbers. “It is also very liberating. Do you know why? I come and don’t have to convince this person or that but do what I think is best for the State of Israel.
“So it is very easy in that connection. It is impossible to threaten me with anything. [I] simply get data and decide what is right. Here you need to create competition and break up a monopoly, there you have to do X or Y with Ukraine. All the time do what is right [regardless of] whether it is popular or not. History will judge how my two and a half years were.”
In other words, Bennett acknowledges that he doesn’t have to worry about whom he will be antagonizing or what part of his base he will be alienating with any particular policy, because he doesn’t have much of a base. So without a base, he can do what he thinks is right.
It’s an interesting governing model but one that is hard to believe any politician actually strives for. Bennett has never given off the sense that at the age of 50 he feels his best political days are behind him and that he will walk gently into the good political night once his term is up in August 2023.
But from a personal political perspective – as opposed to an Israeli diplomatic perspective – there looks to be little downside for Bennett in his mediation efforts.
IF WORST comes to worst and it turns out Putin is playing him; if US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says in a televised interview that he doesn’t understand why Israel is getting involved; if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky slams Bennett for being a Putin puppet, then his image may take a hit in Israel, and his numbers take a drop from four seats to two. So what? Either way his post-prime minister future does not look particularly rosy.
But if this diplomacy turns out to be downright Kissinger-esque, and if it leads to some kind of breakthrough, then this can only redound heavily in his favor. Will the luster of being a peacemaker and the accompanying international plaudits be enough to propel his party in the polls? No one can say for sure, but it certainly will give him much-needed political propulsion.
The last Western statesman who tried his luck with Putin was French President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke by phone with the Russian leader on Sunday and went to Moscow last month in a last-ditch – ultimately unsuccessful – bid to fend off war.
Did it hurt Macron? No. Consider this headline from a Reuters story on Saturday: “Macron gets French poll boost after Ukraine crisis interventions.” According to the poll, Macron, who recently announced his candidacy for reelection in the French presidential race in April, got a 5% boost in the polls over a period of a week.
Three days earlier, the Financial Times ran a story under the headline: “Ukraine war boosts Emmanuel Macron’s election chances.” Among the reasons given was that Macron’s prominence on the world stage helped his ratings. And all that even though Macron’s efforts fell flat.
While Israel is not France, and while Israel’s elections are not scheduled for another three years – during which time the Ukrainian war will likely recede from memory – something can be learned from the bump Macron received in the polls: Playing a central role on the international stage during a crisis plays well to the home audience. And that is something that can only help Bennett politically.