Like other new leaders around the world, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett rode the corona wave to the Prime Minister’s Office.
His professional criticism of the policies of his predecessor, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, made him look ready for the premiership. The book that he wrote on how to defeat the corona conveyed the message to the public that he could be the savior who protects Israel from the pandemic and prevents the loss of countless jobs.
But the rise of the omicron variant has highlighted Bennett’s difficulties not only in getting the public to listen to him, but also the ministers in his cabinet. With the public, the data on the low vaccination rates of children indicates that his repeated pleading has not persuaded a large percentage of parents.
With the ministers, there has been no crisis that could topple Bennett’s government. But one minister after another has been showing Bennett disrespect.
There was Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu), who initially downplayed the new variant and compared it to the flu, exactly when Bennett was trying to ring alarm bells and motivate the public to take action. Liberman’s motivation was that he is the one who pays the bills, and he has since walked back the flu comparison, but the damage has already been done.
Economy Minister Orna Barbivay stopped Bennett’s plan for requiring the Green Pass to enter all but the most urgent stores in shopping malls. Her Yesh Atid colleague, Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov, has slammed his policies that have caused irrevocable harm to the tourism industry.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton (New Hope) has had a tough time answering charges that she has sabotaged the vaccination efforts in schools. Bennett admitted in an interview with Good Morning Israel host Effi Triger on Army Radio that he investigated whether she hid data from him and the public.
Channel 12 reported on two separate arguments with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) on Tuesday night. Horowitz reportedly threatened a coalition crisis if his ministry will have to continue paying for every aspect of the fight against corona. He also bickered with Bennett over specific vaccination goals.
Even his close ally, Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, convened a mass rally of his Yesh Atid party’s activists shortly after Bennett pleaded not to attend large events.
Netanyahu mocked these disputes in his speech following Bennett’s address to the Knesset on Monday.
“In this fraudulent government, even Bennett doesn’t believe Bennett,” Netanyahu said.
So why are Bennett’s ministers not listening to him?
One answer is the decentralized structure of the government, built with two blocs given an equal say.
Each party leader was given his own fiefdom, and that made each minister fight to defend his turf.
Another reason is that Bennett has changed his mind over and over again on corona-related decisions. The most blatant was when he told Israelis not to go abroad, and then briefly downplayed the variant after his wife and children flew out of the country.
The final explanation of why Bennett has had challenges getting his ministers on board is that he is not Netanyahu.
A former Likud minister said this week that all of his colleagues saw Netanyahu as head and shoulders above him, so defying him publicly was never an option. Bennett is only 49 and does not have Netanyahu’s 35 years of political experience.
Bennett’s term is set to end in August of 2023, and he is unlikely to be prime minister again after that.
Those are reasons why the prime minister who came to power riding the wave of corona is now struggling to get his ministers to swim after him.