The rise and fall of Naftali Bennett

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: For the nation, the road Bennett chose led to unseating Netanyahu (at least temporarily) for the first time in 12 years.

 NAFTALI BENNETT in the Knesset this week – he was left playing lead soloist with some admirers, but few true followers willing to pay to see him perform, in a band that was breaking up. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
NAFTALI BENNETT in the Knesset this week – he was left playing lead soloist with some admirers, but few true followers willing to pay to see him perform, in a band that was breaking up.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Following last year’s inconclusive elections, former prime minister Naftali Bennett, like the narrator in Robert Frost’s classic poem “The Road Not Taken,” came to a fork in the road.

“Two roads diverged in a wood,” wrote Frost, “and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Unlike the character in Frost’s poem, whose roads diverged “in a yellow wood,” Bennett’s roads diverged in a political forest. 

After last year’s election, Bennett stood before two paths. One path, the path on his right, led him to the camp of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In that camp were firmly ensconced the Likud, Bennett’s erstwhile allies in the Religious Zionist Party, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Without Bennett and his seven Yamina seats, that camp numbered 52 Knesset seats. With him, it would grow to 59. Still not enough to form a coalition of 61, but perhaps an MK or two could have been cherry-picked from one of the two other right-wing parties in the anything-but-Netanyahu camp.

The other road, the one to his left, led him into the anti-Netanyahu camp. In that camp were Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Labor, Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz, New Hope and Ra’am (United Arab List). Without Bennett and his seven Yamina seats, that camp numbered 55 seats. With him it would grow to 62, enough to form a coalition.

And the cherry on top? Bennett would be crowned prime minister, at least for some of the time, pledging to rotate with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid halfway through a full term. 

Bennett chose the latter road, and it did make a difference: a temporary difference for the nation, a huge difference for him and his future political fortunes. 

The lessons

FOR THE nation, the road Bennett chose led to unseating Netanyahu (at least temporarily) for the first time in 12 years. It broke the taboo against having an Arab party in the government. And it showed that parties with diverse ideological views do have much in common and can work together – if even just for a year.

For Bennett, his choice of the “road less traveled” completely altered his political trajectory. Yes, it got him to the political peak in no time, and with only seven Knesset seats in his pocket and only 6.2% of the votes cast having actually gone to his party. But once he reached that peak, he discovered that without support, he would be unable to linger there too long – that he had hit a dead end. At some point, he would have no choice but to climb down from off the mountain top. 

This is what he did with characteristic grace on Wednesday night, announcing that he was taking a break from politics. 

Although Bennett’s move, considering the circumstances, was not unexpected, his speech conjured up memories and contained echoes of a speech given by another leader who shocked his nation by announcing that he would not run in an upcoming election: America’s 36th president, Lyndon B. Johnson.

“I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president,’’ Johnson said on March 31, 1968, to a stunned nation deeply divided by the Vietnam War and race issues. 

A few seconds earlier in that speech, Johnson said that throughout his long years of public service “I have put the unity of the people first. I have put it ahead of any divisive partisanship. And in these times as in times before, it is true that a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand. There is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight.... So I would ask all Americans, whatever their personal interests or concern, to guard against divisiveness and all of its ugly consequences.”

Bennett’s address hit on some of those same themes. 

“One thing saddens me, and that is that many good Israelis whose representatives remained in the opposition felt over the past year as if their worlds had been destroyed,” he said. 

“Look, every group in Israel will sometimes be in the coalition, and sometimes in the opposition, we need to learn to accept that. That is the right order. It is forbidden that half of the nation would be in mourning when the other half establishes a government...”

Bennett continued: “We proved this year that people with different opinions can work together. No one needs to give up their positions, but it is certainly possible and necessary to leave aside, temporarily, ideological disagreements and worry about the economy, security and the future of Israeli citizens. We proved there is a common good, and I want to remind us all now that we will win only if we are united. If we will be divided, we simply will not be. If we are united, nobody can overcome us.”

Not only were there similarities in the Johnson and Bennett speeches announcing their political departures, there were also certain similarities in their tenures. 

Both men came into office unexpectedly, Johnson with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Bennett through brilliant political maneuvering. Both broke with their bases: Johnson, the Texan, was one of the greatest proponents of racial equality ever to sit in the White House, and by so doing broke with the South, which was a base of his support. And Bennett, by forming a government with left-wing and Arab parties, broke with his right-wing base.

And both men spent a much shorter time in office than they expected. 

But there is a significant difference. When Johnson said he was leaving office, everyone who heard his words realized that for the president, 59 years old at the time, that was the end of his political career. He was not coming back.

Not so for the 50-year-old Bennett.

This was how he worded his parting announcement:

“I want to let you know that I do not intend to run in the upcoming elections, but I will remain a loyal soldier to this land, which I have served my whole life as a soldier, officer, minister and your prime minister.”

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett

There was little finality in his words.

Will Bennett take time off?

BENNETT WOULD not be the first Israeli politician who, after losing his job, decided to take some time off. 

Netanyahu did so when he lost to Ehud Barak in the 1999 elections, saying: “I think the time has come to take a break to be with my family, with my wife and children and decide on my future.” he said. He indicated, as Bennett seemed to do Wednesday night, that this respite would be brief, saying: “I still have a lot to give to this country,”

And Ehud Barak did the same thing after losing direct elections to Ariel Sharon in 2001.

But there is one big difference. Both Netanyahu and Barak had a political framework to return to and from which they could launch another bid for power: Netanyahu back to the Likud and Barak back to the Labor Party. 

It is highly unlikely that Bennett, if he returns, will do so via the political framework he founded: Yamina, even if that party still exists after the next elections. 

This underscores one of Bennett’s major shortcomings – as prime minister he proved a poor politician. Granted, he proved a skillful tactician in leveraging just seven Knesset seats to become prime minister, but then he seemed to lose interest in the party and the daily grind of party and coalition politics. 

This is understandable. He was dealing with life and death issues: Corona and Gaza, Iran and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Who wouldn’t rather focus on mediating between Moscow and Kyiv, than on Idit Silman’s complaints, or Nir Orbach’s indecisiveness? That all just seems so small and petty compared with dealing with issues at the summit of power. But, as Bennett learned, you can’t sit perched atop the tree if the tree trunk is crumbling. And his trunk crumbled. 

But this did not necessarily have to be Bennett’s fate. It’s easy to look back at this past year and say he proved himself a good manager – in that he did a good job managing the country through very challenging difficult times – but a lousy politician. 

But he wasn’t born a poor politician. When he burst onto the political scene in 2012 and took over and rejuvenated the Bayit Yehudi Party, the old National Religious Party’s latest incarnation, he was seen as a very able politician. He revitalized the party, brought in new and even secular blood, and led it to 12 seats in the 2013 election, nine more than it got four years earlier. 

Likewise, it took political savvy for him to form up with Yesh Atid’s Lapid after the 2013 election and essentially force Netanyahu – who would rather have kept Bennett out of power – into the government. Along with his political savvy, however, Bennett did – along the way – also display bouts of serious political folly, such as breaking away from the Bayit Yehudi Party in 2019 to set up the New Right Party, which failed to pass the electoral threshold. 

No, it’s too easy to say Bennett’s undoing was that he was a bad politician. For it was through brilliant political maneuvering that he leveraged seven seats into being crowned prime minister in the first place. Bennett’s problem was that in using that leverage he lost his right-wing base.

Tellingly, the warm political eulogies that Bennett has received since he announced he was leaving politics came primarily from the Center and the Left. For instance, from Lapid and Benny Gantz. Those kind words are surely nice for Bennett to hear, but they won’t translate into votes. 

Many on the Center-Left appreciate Bennett for bringing down Netanyahu. They have come to respect his patriotism, his ability to listen to others and have even come to like him personally. But because of his positions on the Palestinian issue and settlements, they are not going to vote for him. 

And the Right, which agrees with him regarding the Palestinians and the settlements, will never forgive him reneging on his campaign promises and for essentially crowning Lapid and for legitimizing the inclusion of a non-Zionist Arab party into the coalition.

So in the end, Bennett was left playing lead soloist with some admirers, but few true followers willing to pay to see him perform, in a band that was breaking up. If he is to launch a comeback at some point, it will have to be with another band playing a different sort of music aimed at a different type of audience.

Ironically, Bennett’s departure is unlikely to have an overly dramatic impact on the country’s political landscape. It is not Bennett’s departure from the political scene that will fundamentally reshuffle Israel’s political deck. That will only happen if Netanyahu is the person to announce a break from politics. 

But, as Netanyahu made clear in a fiery speech to the Knesset Thursday morning just before it voted – yet again – to dissolve itself, those are words Israelis are unlikely to hear from him for quite some time. •