Bennett is still struggling with issues of legitimacy

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Just as Netanyahu lost his legitimacy in the eyes of the people at the end of his term, Bennett never earned his.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem last month.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem last month.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL)

The mantra of the current coalition, sworn in just under a year ago on June 13 with an unlikely slate of eight right-wing, left-wing, centrist and Islamist parties, was that there was more that united the parties than what separated them.

The animating idea behind the coalition agreements that brought the parties together in an unlikely government was that they agree on 80% of the issues facing the country, and can deal with that 80%, while leaving the other 20% – the ideological differences separating them – for another day.

As Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in his maiden speech to the Knesset after it was sworn in a year ago: “The government that will be formed represents many of Israel’s citizens: from Ofra to Tel Aviv, from Rahat to Kiryat Shmona. Precisely here lies the opportunity. Our principle is, we will sit together, and we will forge forward on that which we agree on – and there is much we agree on: transport, education and so on – and what separates us we will leave to the side.”

How ironic it will be, therefore, if the government falls over an inability to pass an extension to a directive extending Israeli law to Israelis living in settlements beyond the Green Line. Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said this week that if the coalition cannot pass that extension – something done routinely every five years – there will be no coalition.

The settlements are the mother of all the ideological differences inside this government. If the coalition cannot pass this legislation, it means that it is impossible to ignore ideological differences and just work for the common good. Nice sounding formula, but apparently impossible to implement.

 PRECARIOUS PRIME minister: ‘Naftali [Bennett] already fell.’ (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) PRECARIOUS PRIME minister: ‘Naftali [Bennett] already fell.’ (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

There will be little celebrating in the coalition on June 13 when the government marks its first anniversary. To do so would be disingenuous, like a young couple celebrating its first anniversary while in the midst of a divorce process.

And this coalition, by all appearances, is very much in the process of divorce: unable to pass basic legislation, faced with one coalition crisis after another, one MK issuing an ultimatum after the next.

Bennett, during his speech to the Knesset a year ago, took aim at the government he came to replace and the rifts it engendered. “Such quarrels between the people who are supposed to be running the country led to paralysis. One who quarrels cannot function,” he declared.

Well, day after day, week after week, Bennett’s own government, just a week shy of finishing a full year in office, is riven by quarrels affecting its ability to effectively function and govern.

THIS DOES NOT mean that the government is bereft of any achievements. It is not. If one confronts people on the Right who fulminate against the government, those who say it is an unmitigated disaster, and asks them what the government has done so bad in its first year in office to incur their wrath, many will be hard pressed – at least in terms of policy – to provide an answer.

For this government does have achievements.

In the realm of diplomacy, Israel – under Bennett and Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid – is doing quite well. Doomsday scenarios that Israel’s standing in the world would collapse without former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm have failed to come to pass.

Bennett and Lapid took the Abraham Accords, with which they were gifted by the previous government and US administration, and moved them forward. Trade, security cooperation and tourism with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco are booming. Those three countries, plus Egypt and the US, attended an unprecedented summit in the Negev three months ago. And this new spirit of cooperation with the Gulf countries is beginning to spill over, though not yet formally, to Saudi Arabia as well.

Ties with Turkey have been resuscitated, ties with Egypt remain strong, and relations with Jordan have improved under this government, though they still leave a lot to be desired – more the fault of Amman, however, than of Jerusalem.

Bennett’s fiercest critics come from the Right, but when looking at the Palestinian track and the situation in Judea and Samaria, these critics don’t have that much to complain about. There are no negotiations with the Palestinians over a two-state solution, which Bennett himself has said he opposes; no one is talking about removing settlements; and the rate of construction in the settlements is not that dissimilar to what it was under Netanyahu.

Ties with the US Democratic administration and certain European governments have improved, largely because those countries do not want to do anything that could weaken the current government – such as press hard on the Palestinian issue. Why not? Because they much prefer this government to a right-wing government led by Netanyahu.

The government stood its ground in opposing Washington’s intention of opening a consulate in east Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians, and also was instrumental in getting US President Joe Biden to back down from the idea of delisting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Also, the US has not reentered a nuclear agreement with Iran, something this government is steadfastly against.

On military and security issues, this government is also doing pretty well when compared with the previous Netanyahu governments. Operations continue against Iranian assets in Syria, despite this being made more complicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In addition, Israel – true to Bennett’s doctrine regarding how to fight Iran’s proxy wars, and if foreign reports are to be believed – is taking the battle to Iran itself, to the head of the octopus, and no longer granting it immunity for the terrorism it supports and its tentacles carry out against Israeli or Jewish targets abroad.

On the terrorism front, the last three months have been extremely difficult, but it is hard to place the uptick in terrorism at Bennett’s feet.

Under Netanyahu, too, there were sporadic waves of terrorism. Bennett has green-lighted an aggressive policy to fight the most recent wave of terrorism with night and day raids deep inside Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the West Bank, and he has implemented a zero-tolerance policy for any projectiles – from inflammable balloons to rockets – flying out of Gaza.

On the economic front, too, the government has registered some achievements. First, it passed a budget – not insignificant, since the country hadn’t had one since 2018.

The country’s economy grew by 8.1% in 2021. And even though it shrunk by 1.6% in the last quarter, it is still doing better than most economies in the world. The inflation rate, while high at 4%, is well below the 9% rate in Britain, 8.3% rate in the US, and 8.1% in the euro bloc countries. And unemployment, which stood at 5.1% last June, is now at a 50-year low of 2.9%.

Add to this the fact that Israel dealt with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus without any closures and as well, if not better, than most other countries, and one is hard pressed to understand why the current government is so unpopular.

YET IT is. And the reason is not necessarily the policies the government has pursued, but, rather, the way it has done so. Bennett, who rode into the Prime Minister’s Office on the back of a paltry seven Knesset seats, has seen even those seven seats now whittled down to five.

Though he became prime minister in a completely democratic fashion, playing well within the rules that govern the democratic game in this country, he is still not viewed by a large swath of the population as someone who legitimately – with only five Knesset seats under his command – should be running the country and making the life and death decisions affecting everyone.

Adding to his legitimacy problems is that to join this coalition he had to go back on numerous campaign promises – such as that he would not sit with Lapid or enter a government reliant on an Arab party – that he made before the elections.

During a television interview just a day before the elections in 2021, Bennett demonstratively signed a statement declaring that he “won’t allow Yair Lapid to be prime minister, including in a rotation,” and that he would not “establish a government based on the support of Mansour Abbas from the Islamic Movement.”

He did both.

All politicians break campaign promises; but in the minds of his critics, these were pretty fundamental promises, and to renege on them would be like a candidate for the US presidency running on an antiabortion ticket, only to switch over to become pro-choice once he moved into the White House.

This “legitimacy deficit,” however, is not unique to Bennett or to this government. Netanyahu, once police investigations against him began in earnest in 2017 and indictments on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust were formally filed in 2019, faced the same problem: a big part of the country did not think that a prime minister accused and then indicted on graft charges could serve in office.

The country under Netanyahu was, at least on paper, doing pretty well. Sure, there were problems with governance and a tremendous internal rift rooted in whether he should be allowed to remain in office, but on the international stage and economically the country was in good shape.

But it wasn’t enough, because of the legitimacy issue. The public does not only want a prime minister who may be able to steer the country to green pastures, it also wants a prime minister it feels has the moral right to be sitting behind the steering wheel in the first place.

Netanyahu in the later years of his term lost that legitimacy, and despite all his achievements, Bennett, in the first year of his own term, failed to ever earn it.•