Will Naftali Bennett be brought down by Burgers Bar, chocolate bars?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Ousting Amichai Chikli an MK who couldn’t do very much already as an unofficial one-man faction, turned this gadfly into Godzilla.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Deputy Minister for Regulatory Matters in the Prime Minister’s Office Abir Kara attend Mimouna celebrations in Moshav Shilat last week. (photo credit: FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Deputy Minister for Regulatory Matters in the Prime Minister’s Office Abir Kara attend Mimouna celebrations in Moshav Shilat last week.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Channel 13 analyst Ayala Hasson’s reports last weekend about NIS 50,000 in taxpayer money that the Bennett family spends monthly on take-out meals, cleaning, gardening and utilities at his private residence in Ra’anana could have done significant damage to the prime minister.

At a time when his coalition is wobbling and his political career is in jeopardy, the last thing Bennett needs now is to earn the elitist image of his predecessor, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Bennett, who is a hi-tech multimillionaire, cannot afford to be seen as someone who wastes taxpayer funds on perks for his family.

Particularly damning were the reports that NIS 24,700 a month went to take-out meals for the prime minister’s family in Ra’anana while he was working late in Jerusalem.

“The Wolt [delivery service] in Ra’anana has been working overtime,” Hasson said, as she introduced her report with a smile.

The reports forced Bennett to commit to ending the practice of letting taxpayers pay for such meals, even though it is legally permitted as long as his home is an official residence for the prime minister while the normal residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street is being prepared for renovations.

 Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett at a conference of the Srugim news website above the  Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank on March 21, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett at a conference of the Srugim news website above the Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank on March 21, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Bennett has strongly denied other reports about nearly NIS 50 million being spent on renovations of his home. All he has admitted is that one of the rooms in his house was converted into a study with encrypted communication systems at a cost of NIS 160,000, and that other security upgrades have been made without his involvement.

But the reports about the food deliveries he not only confirmed; he even admitted that the actual expenditures were higher than in the report itself.

So could the Burgers Bar on Ra’anana’s Ahuza Street that his four kids are so fond of become what ends up choking Bennett’s premiership?

The answer is apparently no, because of the impact of the reports on the people who matter to Bennett: The 60 MKs remaining in his coalition.

For them, the reports were a reminder of why they formed the government – namely, Netanyahu. When Bennett wrote on Facebook that he is not Bibi, his wife, Gilat, is not Sara Netanyahu, and his kids are not Yair Netanyahu, that goes a long way with them.

Bennett’s office responded that Netanyahu spent far more – NIS 280,000 ($86,000) per month – on the Prime Minister’s Residence and on his personal home in Caesarea. (An unfair comparison, because Bennett did not include the current expenses at Balfour in his totals.)

That reminder of the hedonism of Netanyahu and his family is exactly what Bennett needed to strengthen his coalition before the Knesset returns on May 9 from its recess, which Bennett could only wish was longer.

The reports, of course, also helped Netanyahu. Unlike Bennett, his political base is not just 60 people. (Bennett barely has a base left in the public.)

Netanyahu’s base is the right-wing masses that have consistently given him 30 seats in the Knesset and continue to do so in the polls.

Just like for Bennett, what riles up Netanyahu’s base is a common enemy: in his case, the elitist mainstream media.

The Likud has been arguing on social media that Netanyahu and his family spent a tenth of what the Bennetts spent on takeaway meals. (This is not a true comparison, because they also employed chefs at the taxpayers’ expense.)

The party has been painting the Netanyahu family as unfairly crucified by the mainstream media for doing what anyone would do, and other prime ministers have done even worse.

Reports this week of death threats to Bennett and his family also helped both Bennett and Netanyahu with their respective political bases.

In Israel, nothing makes a politician look more prime ministerial than security guards and death threats. That is why Netanyahu asked to be guarded when he ran for prime minister for the first time in 1996, and why the alternate prime minister is given the same security detail as the prime minister now.

Bennett looks more like a leader to the MKs in his coalition, thanks to those threats.

The reason the threats also help Netanyahu is that his right-wing base, which was blamed as a whole for the Rabin assassination, still sees reports of such threats as unfairly maligning more than half the country. Netanyahu needs his base to be angry and energized, and such reports help.

Another news item that helped Bennett this week is the salmonella recall of Elite/Strauss chocolates. Putting health back at the top of the news, especially for something he cannot be blamed for, is a welcome distraction. The reports also distracted from this week’s progress in the testimony of state’s witness Shlomo Filber in Netanyahu’s trial, which helps the opposition leader.

THE FINAL big news item of the week is more complicated for both Bennett and Netanyahu: the Knesset House Committee’s decision to approve Bennett’s request to officially declare rebel Yamina MK Amichai Chikli a defector.

The decision means that Chikli will not be able to run for the next Knesset with any current Knesset faction. To run, he would have to form or join a new political party.

Bennett’s goal in officially ousting Chikli was to deter former coalition head Idit Silman to not vote against the coalition, and thereby keep its majority at 60-59, rather than a 60-60 tie.

But Bennett’s move was also politically risky because he made Chikli into a martyr. He took an MK who couldn’t do very much already as an unofficial one-man faction and turned a gadfly into Godzilla.

Chikli has become a star for the ideologically starved Right, which was badly burned by Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Gideon Sa’ar and is seeking authentic, right-wing leaders they can trust. The following day, Chikli spoke to his supporters on Twitter Space and was treated like a right-wing deity.

“Netanyahu at one point told his ministers to be Kahlonim [like his minister Moshe Kahlon, who was seen as a doer],” one activist said in the forum. “Now the public wants its politicians to be Chiklim.”

Left-wing columnists who may not understand the Right’s thirst for genuine right-wing leadership mocked Chikli this week, saying that “he is now Netanyahu’s problem,” because a Chikli-led party that would not pass the electoral threshold could harm the Likud.

Chikli promptly promised on 103 FM that if he saw his potential party would harm the Right, he would drop out immediately.

But in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Saturday night, Chikli revealed why he would not threaten the Right’s success. He said he believes Netanyahu will sign a plea agreement in his criminal cases, and that he was taking that into account in his decision-making.

If that happens, the Likud could be weakened, and a new right-wing party could help pick up the slack.

It is no wonder that in his criticism of Bennett in the Knesset this week, Chikli made a point of attacking him from the Right. He warned Israelis that the diplomatic policies of Bennett were dictated by Americans, whom he called “Obama’s boys – Nides and Blinken.”

Chikli’s attorney, Guy Busy, also helped by constantly referring to Bennett’s party as “Kadima, I mean Yamina,” in a manner that former Kadima officials in the Knesset said was clearly done on purpose.

Silman came into the room fashionably late, and was greeted with hugs from the backbench Likud women who could lose their jobs in the next Knesset due to the reserved slot on the list she would receive as part of her reported deal with Netanyahu.

After telling jokes each time she was asked how she would vote on Chikli, Silman ended up leaving the Knesset before the vote. Like other MKs in the coalition and opposition, she paid a shiva call to wavering Yamina MK Nir Orbach, whose mother and mother-in-law both died last weekend.

With all due respect to Burgers Bar and chocolate bars, the behavior of Silman, Orbach and other Yamina MKs in the weeks ahead is what could really end up deciding how long Bennett’s government will last.