Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in his own telling, is Israel’s “accidental” premier.
That, somewhat oddly, is how he described his rise to power in his speech on Monday to the United Nations.
“In Israel, after four elections in two years, with a fifth looming, the people yearned for an antidote: Calm. Stability. An honest attempt for political normalcy. Inertia is always the easiest choice,” he said.
“But there are moments in time where leaders have to take the wheel a moment before the cliff, face the heat, and drive the country to safety. And that’s exactly what we did. About a hundred days ago my partners and I formed a new government in Israel. The most diverse government in our history. What started as a political accident can now turn into a purpose. And that purpose is unity.
“Today we sit together, around one table. We speak to each other with respect, we act with decency, and we carry a message: Things can be different. Even though we harbor very different political opinions, we sit together for the sake of our nation.”
That purpose – unity in the midst of what was a dangerous political logjam – is laudable.
But as a prime minister without much of a political base who commands the loyalty of only five other Knesset members, to be anything more than just a transitional figure between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid, Bennett must come up with another formidable achievement beyond the very establishment of a diverse government. Because forming a diverse government is not the stuff of which political bases are created, nor of which political longevity is nourished and ensured.
Bennett, now in power for over three months, needs to forge his own identity as prime minister beyond being the result of a “political accident.”
He needs to step out of the long shadow Netanyahu cast by virtue of being such a dominant figure in this country’s life for so long, and he needs to evade the smaller shadow already being cast by Lapid, who leads the largest party in the coalition and who is scheduled to replace Bennett on August 27, 2023.
Fairly or unfairly, critics on the Right are saying that Bennett is the ceremonial prime minister, while Lapid is the real one. Bennett, if aspiring for more than “just” a two-year run at this job, needs to disabuse the nation of that notion.
The opportunity given him this week to address the UN General Assembly was a chance to do just that – to set himself apart from Netanyahu, and to look more prime ministerial than Lapid.
Bennett fumbled the chance.
THE PRIME MINISTER’S miscues began even before he got on the plane. The way to move out of someone’s shadow, such as Netanyahu’s, is not to keep reminding the public of Netanyahu.
In briefings last week before the speech, Bennett’s spokesman Matan Sidi invited comparisons with Netanyahu by telling reporters that Bennett’s address “will be different from the style of Netanyahu’s speeches. There will not be visual aids, posters, drawings, etc.” In other words, none of Netanyahu’s well-known gimmicks.
By saying this, however, Sidi invited comparisons to Netanyahu’s speeches, which was a mistake, because Netanyahu is a master speechmaker and a consummate orator.
Don’t go into the UN comparing yourself to Netanyahu at the UN, because you’ll lose.
Netanyahu may have overused the props – one year it was original blueprints of Auschwitz to counter Iranian Holocaust denial, another year it was a cartoon illustration of a bomb to show Israel’s redlines on Iran’s nuclear program, and another it was a placard showing Hezbollah missile sites in Beirut – but the man knew how to get the world’s attention.
The speeches of world leaders at the UN are generally boring affairs, and except for what a US or Iranian president has to say – the US president because of his country’s impact on the world, and the Iranian president because of that nation’s ability to destabilize the world – few of the speeches capture headlines or draw attention. Netanyahu’s did. Not all the time, but enough of the time to matter.
Netanyahu knew how to give a speech on the UN’s stage. Every line was written and rewritten, polished and repolished. Every pause was preplanned, every turn to one side of the hall or the other done to create an effect.
Bennett’s English matches Netanyahu’s – it, too, is without an accent. But his delivery cannot compare. He doesn’t have Netanyahu’s voice, pacing or choreographed mannerisms. Which is okay. Not everyone is an orator.
But if you’re not, and you’re going to the world’s premier stage, don’t compare yourself beforehand to a man who is. Bennett’s spokesman invited the Netanyahu comparisons, and that was a mistake.
There was, however, one part of the speech that was Netanyahu-esque, though not something Netanyahu would have brought up on the world stage: Bennett’s unnecessary jab at the Health Ministry professionals.
“Running a country during a pandemic is not only about health. It’s about carefully balancing all aspects of life that are affected by corona, especially jobs and education,” he said.
“While doctors are an important input, they cannot be the ones running the national initiative. The only person that has a good vantage point of all of this – is the national leader of any given country.”
Bennett’s public criticism in the UN was augmented in private by even more harsh words against the health professionals who he feels are stymieing his plans to effectively have the country live alongside corona, and not be paralyzed by it.
While there may be something to his arguments, why voice them at the UN? Why go on an international stage and put down the professionals in your own government?
Netanyahu, who had no compunction about putting down the professionals working in the government’s vast bureaucracy, would not have squandered time on the UN podium doing it there. There is a time and place for everything, and the UN General Assembly is not the time or place to perpetuate a fight with Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s head of Public Health Services.
What made this so jarring – not only Bennett’s broadcast remarks but also the ones said in briefings with reporters – was that it runs against the image he has labored to create.
While Netanyahu honed an image for long as Mr. Security, Bennett – over the last few months – has cultivated the image of Mr. Quiet. His whole ticket, his whole new political persona, is the guy who governs without drama, the prime minister who will bring industrial quiet, who doesn’t pick fights.
Picking a high-profile and unnecessary fight with those working in the government bureaucracy doesn’t fit with this image. Here, precisely, he could be compared with Netanyahu, but that is not a comparison that will do him any political good.
THE MAN WHO came in to take Bennett’s coals out of the fire, to try to keep this feud with the Health Ministry professionals from turning into a major fire as the country struggles with the newest coronavirus wave, was Lapid.
Lapid, at a meeting of his Yesh Atid faction on Wednesday, called for peace between Bennett and the Health Ministry professionals.
“I will not let there be wars and struggles over credit between professionals and the government,” he said. “The medical, economic and educational professionals issue their recommendations, and the government decides. This is the only proper hierarchy.”
Bennett chose to fight at the UN with the Health Ministry professionals, they responded in kind with angry rebuttals, and into the breach strode Lapid in the role of peacemaker. But this should be the prime minister’s role, so instead of stepping out of Lapid’s shadow at the UN, Bennett reentered it when he returned from New York to Israel.
By coming in as peacemaker, Lapid further burnished his credentials as the country’s mature adult: the gentleman politician who sacrificed ego and ambition by letting Bennett go first as prime minister in their rotation agreement.
Lapid’s decision to move aside and let Bennett lead first, a step unheard of in Israeli politics, is increasingly looking politically astute – at least if the rotation is carried out as planned – for several reasons.
First, because it makes Lapid look like a mensch in a line of work where being a mensch is not a widespread commodity, but one that is appreciated by large segments of the public.
Second, because by Lapid serving after Bennett, two years removed from Netanyahu, not everything he will do, not every speech he will give, will be judged through the prism of what Netanyahu would have done. Bennett is in a difficult position because he is being judged against Netanyahu, a tough standard given that Netanyahu served in that position for more than 15 years.
But while Bennett will forever be compared to Netanyahu, by the time Lapid is scheduled to take over, Netanyahu will have been out of power for more than two years and the natural comparison will be how Lapid is stacking up relative to Bennett – an easier stick to be measured against if only because of the brevity of his time in office.
Finally, when Lapid takes the reins in the summer of 2023, the coronavirus will likely not be as dominant and defining an issue as it is today. A Prime Minister Lapid will likely be free to deal with war and peace issues where it will be easier to make a mark or fire up a base.
Bennett doesn’t have that luxury. He is being defined by the coronavirus, and by using time allocated for his speech at the UN to quibble with his Health Ministry professionals instead of presenting some grander vision, he is letting it define him. That is no way to step out of Netanyahu’s shadow or keep Lapid – who on Thursday was the highest-level Israeli official to fly to Bahrain since the signing of the Abraham Accords – from overshadowing him.•