Bennett neglected his home party and paid a heavy price - analysis

Putin and Zelensky are important, but you’re not going to be able to deal with them if your own house is not in order.

 Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett speaks with MK Idit Silman a discussion on the Electricity Law connecting to Arab and Bedouin towns, during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, January 5, 2022.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett speaks with MK Idit Silman a discussion on the Electricity Law connecting to Arab and Bedouin towns, during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, January 5, 2022.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“When there is love, everything works out,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at a news conference on Tuesday, quoting his wife and channeling his inner Romeo when answering a question about a crisis over hametz that erupted the day before.

On Monday, Yamina MK and coalition whip Idit Silman decried Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz from Meretz for sending a letter to the heads of hospitals instructing them to abide by a 2020 High Court of Justice decision and let guests bring bread and other leavened products (hametz) into the hospitals during the upcoming Passover holiday. 

With words full of pathos about how this was a cardinal issue for her, Silman threatened that it was something she could not tolerate.

Bennett, at the news conference, did not seem to take the issue too seriously.

The right way to deal with the issue of hametz on Passover, he said, was not through coercion or legislation, but through mutual respect and consideration. Bennett recalled that he was raised in a religious home, and his wife in a non-religious one, and that when he asked his future wife before they wed how they would deal with the religious issues when they popped up, she answered with that line about love conquering all.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting, March 20, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting, March 20, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Then in the very next breath, he said — without mentioning anyone by name — that Horowitz need not have written letters to the hospital heads about the matter, nor did Silman need to have issued ultimatums.

“If we all relax, not try to make political hay, write letters with directives to do this and that, and on the other side, not [issue] ultimatums, we can work it out.”

Or not.

Bennett, who often refers to his marriage and his wife, certainly knows that in successful marriages, love, though an essential ingredient, is not enough. A marriage to thrive needs love, certainly, but also day-to-day maintenance: it needs hard work.

The same is true of a coalition — which is, after all, a political marriage — and of a political party itself. They, too, need maintenance to keep the love burning.

Bennett did not tend to his party, to the coalition, nor to the love, as evident by Silman’s announcement on Wednesday that she was bolting the government, thus throwing the political picture into utter disarray.

There is something ironic in that over the last few weeks Bennett has been trying to mediate between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, even darting off to Moscow one Shabbat morning, while his own party was falling apart.

It is also ironic that the weakest link in the coalition is the prime minister’s own party, where one MK, Amichai Chikli, already bolted, and another — MK Abir Kara — was questioned by police this week for casting a double vote in the Knesset last year, something he said was an innocent mistake.

Putin and Zelensky are important, but you’re not going to be able to deal with them if your own house is not in order. Bennett, it seems, wanted to save the world, when what he should have been doing was expend the same amount of energy trying to save his own party. You can’t fly to the moon if the propulsion system in your rocket engine is not functioning properly.

Small-time politics, being in touch with your party, understanding what is bothering its representatives, and greasing the wheels of the coalition might be Sisyphean work that is not particularly sexy, but it needs to be done.

Silman, who has come under intense pressure from her National-Religious community since the coalition was formed, was already sending distress signals last month when she came out against the Western Wall compromise plan that would have seen the creation of an egalitarian plaza at the site. For much of the public, her objection to the deal came out of left field. Why was she objecting? What was her problem? Where did this come from? Why now?

This should have been a sign that something was up. At that point, Bennett should have intervened to see what this public objection meant. The warning sign was there, but — apparently — not heeded. And not only by Bennett but by other members of the coalition as well. Did Horowitz really have to send that letter to the hospitals about the hametz? Sure, it played well with his base, but – as Silman said when she harangued Horowitz for the letter – it showed a lack of consideration for his coalition partners. And she was right.

Everyone thought Silman was grandstanding or bluffing, or both, about the hametz issue. No one took her veiled threats too seriously, as so many parties in the eight-party coalition have made similar threats over the last few months. But she wasn’t bluffing.

It is obvious that Silman is not bolting the coalition and possibly bringing down the government because of a letter Horowitz wrote about hametz. That was just the last straw. There were plenty of other straws. She had a bellyful of straws. Bennett didn’t see them, or if he did, he didn’t pay them much mind.

He was too busy playing Kissingerian diplomacy. The true art of politics, however, is not only winning office, but staying there. Especially with the coalition hand that Bennett was dealt, and when there were so many furious forces wanting to bring him down.

Bennett played his political cards brilliantly and managed to get to the pinnacle of power in Israel while riding into the Knesset on only seven seats. But then he went to political sleep, dealing with all the things that he must deal with as prime minister: the pandemic, expanding the Abraham Accords, the Ukraine crisis, Iran, the uptick in terrorism.

But he neglected the one thing that would enable him to continue to do all that at least for another year and a quarter: his party. A prime minister must also look after and keep tabs on his own party.

On Wednesday, Silman let it be known that neglect has its price — and it is steep.