What the exodus from the Prime Minister's Office foretells - analysis

Bennett needs some powerful propulsion motors to right his ship.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset plenum, May 11, 2022.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset plenum, May 11, 2022.

Every day seems to bring Prime Minister Naftali Bennett a new political headache.

One day it is his own party’s Idit Silman announcing she was leaving the coalition; the next a similar statement – soon retracted – that Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi was doing the same. A few weeks ago Ra’am head Mansour Abbas froze his party’s participation in the coalition; now it is Blue and White MK Michael Biton saying he won’t vote for the coalition except on no-confidence measures.

All that has led to non-stop speculation regarding the fate of the government: Will it survive? How long? What and who will bring it down?

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said on Tuesday the future of the coalition rests on whether the Islamist Ra’am party will vote with the government to renew the extension of Israeli law to Israelis living in Judea and Samaria.

As the saying goes: Good luck with that.

But one need not look only at the endless ultimatums and quibbling inside the coalition to understand that the government is on its last leg – one could look at the disarray inside the Prime Minister’s Office and see the same picture.

Ideal versus reality

The prime minister needs an efficient, capable, loyal support staff. He needs an advisor he can trust and depend on, and those who can give him the counsel he might not want to hear. He needs this when things are running smoothly, and – even more so – when they are not.

Right now things are not running smoothly. And precisely at the time when he most needs good advice and trusted advisers, he turns around and sees his office falling apart.

On Monday evening Bennett’s personal assistant, Naomi Sasson, who has worked for him since 2016, announced she was stepping down. This followed the announcement a week before by Tal Gan-Zvi, his right-hand man and chief-of-staff who had been at Bennett’s side since the prime minister entered politics in 2012, that he was calling it quits. And Gan-Zvi’s move came 10 days after his rival in the PMO, foreign affairs advisor Shmrit Meir, announced that she would be leaving as of June 1.

In addition, there are persistent rumors that Bennett’s spokesman, Matan Sidi, will also soon announce his resignation.

Reading the signs

In less than three weeks, Bennett has lost the backbone of his inner circle. For those wondering whether the government can last, that type of exodus at a critical juncture – merely a year into his time in office – is not a harbinger of good news.

There are a couple of ways to interpret this exodus.

The first is a simple clash of ideologies.

Meir, who wielded a great deal of influence inside the PMO, was trying to pull the prime minister toward the political center; Gan-Zvi wanted him to retain the right-wing base he still had. Meir wanted him to find a new base; Gan-Zvi believed he should stay as true as he could to his old one. When Meir left, it looked as if Gan-Zvi had won. His resignation so quickly after hers shows that maybe he thought that he had not.

Another way to interpret the exodus is a realization among those closest to Bennett that the ship is sinking, and there is simply no point staying on until the bitter end.

Bennett's replacements

No one is irreplaceable, and Bennett moved quickly to fill the gaps. On Monday he announced that Eden Bizman, 36, deputy director-general of the PMO, would move into Gan-Zvi’s old position. He also announced that Karen Hajioff, 32, who is currently his spokesperson to the foreign media, would take over at least part of Meir’s responsibilities as a “special advisor on foreign affairs and communications.”

Bennett needs some powerful propulsion motors to right his ship. As capable as are Bizman and Hajioff, there are questions on whether they bring the necessary heft to their key roles to help Bennett do just that.

No drama in Yair Lapid's office

It is interesting to note that while Bennett’s top staff is abandoning ship, over in the quarters of his co-captain Yair Lapid, there have been no similar disruptions. There, too, one could imagine that close aides – perhaps having doubts whether Lapid will, in the end, rotate into the role of the prime minister as originally planned – might think that this is also their time to leave for more promising pastures.

Yet in Lapid’s office, there is no similar disquiet.

One reason may have to do with what the future holds.

If the government collapses, Bennett’s political future – and the future of his party – will very much be in doubt. Lapid and Yesh Atid, on the other hand, will survive.

Lapid might not be prime minister, at least not in August 2023 as stipulated in his agreement with Bennett, but he and his party will continue to be a significant political force. The same cannot be said with any certainty of Bennett and Yamina. And if there is one thing that the close advisers of both men know, it is how to read a political map.