MIDDLE ISRAEL: How Bennett missed an opportunity to become a leader

The politician who thought he could blackmail the prime minister is the same one who thought a soccer star can represent rabbis in the Knesset

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a reception hosted by the Orthodox Union in Jerusalem ahead of the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018 (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a reception hosted by the Orthodox Union in Jerusalem ahead of the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Ultimatums don’t deserve their bad name.
Not all ultimatum deliverers are power drunk, as Adolf Hitler was when he gave Czechoslovakia four days to choose between surrender and war, and not all are as unrealistic as jazz singer René Marie’s husband was when he told her “stop singing or leave,” only to be divorced by his wife of 23 years.
Some ultimatums, like John Kennedy’s to Nikita Khrushchev in October 1962 – that the US will bomb his Cuban missile sites if they are not dismantled – were both well calculated and just.
Sadly, the ultimatum that gripped the Jewish state last weekend was miscalculated, unjustified and downright stupid – so much so that it calls into question the entire political formula that makes Education Minister Naftali Bennett tick.
ANYONE with eyes in his head knew Bennett’s ultimatum to Benjamin Netanyahu – make me defense minister or face an early election – had to crash at takeoff.
It is one thing to raise a demand across a closed room’s negotiation table, and an entirely different thing to make the same demand publicly, vocally, and at gunpoint. Netanyahu could under no circumstances afford to give in. The political jungle’s every creature would have lost the respect for Netanyahu that took him a quarter-century to build.
And so it took one rabbi’s telephoned reprimand to dissuade Bennett, who now made the kind of retreat Godfather II’s Frank Pentangeli staged from his planned testimony against Michael Corleone, who brought to the Senate hearing the witness’s Sicilian brother.
Even more embarrassingly, Bennett’s retreat was announced not through a leak or a tweet, but at a much-heralded press conference in which he and his sidekick, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, faced a battery of cameras, microphones and reporters only to make fools of themselves by announcing their unconditional surrender.
Such, then, were this ultimatum’s miscalculations, both before it was delivered and after it was withdrawn. Yet even more perplexing was the purpose of this water-pistol offensive.
THE ASSUMPTION that a national predicament’s solution lies in one individual’s appointment to one position is in most cases overstated, but in this one it was absurd.
Two Israeli precedents in this regard are telling.
One was in 1979, when hyperinflation demanded drastic action, and people thought industrialist Yigael Hurvitz – a self-made millionaire – would cure the economy. Hurvitz was indeed made finance minister, but resigned after 14 months because he – like Bennett today – lacked the political clout his task demanded.
The other was in June ’67, when war’s approach made politicians panic and demand prime minister Levi Eshkol hand over the defense portfolio to Moshe Dayan.
Eshkol reluctantly complied, and Dayan’s appointment indeed bolstered public confidence, arguably contributing to the subsequent victory. Yet that was Dayan, the world-renowned general and war hero.
Dayan’s charisma and expertise later proved a double-edged sword, but no one disagreed that they were actually there. What does Bennett think he would bring to the Defense Ministry that other politicians lack? Does he really think several years as a commando coupled with a video gamer’s trigger-happiness equip him to oversee the defense system and also blackmail the prime minister?
Bennett’s misunderstanding of his tragic position in the political landscape is not new. It first surfaced four years ago, when he announced soccer legend Eli Ohana’s inclusion in Bayit Yehudi’s Knesset list.
A shallowly Orthodox hi-tech millionaire who for several years was not observant, Bennett failed to foresee how his innovative move would be resented by his party’s rabbis who spent entire lifetimes decrying the Sabbath desecration in which athletes like Ohana starred.
Technically, Bennett merely misread his party’s one response to one situation. Substantively, he misread his own career.
FOR BENNETT, the historic National Religious Party was to be a platform for something much larger, a rainbow coalition where a secular woman like Shaked can be a minister, where a soccer star like Ohana can be a lawmaker, and the party leader can be an aspiring prime minister, certainly an eligible defense minister.
It was wonderful as a vision, which indeed reflected many younger religious Israelis’ common metamorphosis from Orthodox to traditional. The problem was that Bennett’s actual voters, as opposed to his dreams, remained predominantly observant.
In this regard, Bennett’s course has been remarkably similar to his archrival Avigdor Liberman’s. The resigned defense minister saw in his Russian-speaking voters a springboard for a broader swath of the electorate, with which he would ultimately conquer the premiership.
Just as Bennett deployed the secular Shaked, Ohana and Yinon Magal, Liberman enlisted nonimmigrants such as former Likud minister Uzi Landau, former Israel Aerospace Industries chairman Yair Shamir, and former Israel Police deputy commissioner Yitzhak Aharonovitch.
At one point, in 2009, Liberman’s plan seemed to work, when he won 15 Knesset seats. Since then, however, he has lost 60% of that following, having evidently failed to retain the non-Russian electorate he so much craved.
Bennett didn’t even register that momentary success, having peaked so far at 12 Knesset seats, which is what the NRP had also won several times before and after Bennett was born. Bayit Yehudi’s crop in the last election, eight Knesset seats, indicated it has failed to win the secular electorates Bennett has been eyeing, and is in fact shunned by much of the Modern Orthodox electorate as well.
As argued here previously about Liberman and Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon, such small political formations’ leaders are unsuitable to serve as defense ministers or finance ministers, because these positions demand full harmony with, and unconditional loyalty to, the prime minister and his ideas.
This is even before considering Bennett’s simplistic attitude to the Gaza challenge, a gung ho naïveté that makes Middle Israelis happy to see him sidelined while the hotheaded Liberman’s estate is inherited by the more levelheaded Netanyahu.
“Better to be forbearing than mighty,” said King Solomon (Proverbs 16:32), “to have self-control than to conquer a city.”