On June 20, Naftali Bennett resigned as prime minister.
Resigned here is an understatement. Yes, Bennett resigned from his lofty office – one he had pursued for a decade. But he did more than that. A week later, he said he was leaving politics, giving the reins of his imploded party over to Ayelet Shaked. Then he essentially disappeared from the public stage.
A man who adroitly leveraged the seven seats his Yamina Party won in the 2021 elections into the premiership, a man who for a year was entrusted with this country’s stewardship, a man who made life-and-death decisions, a man who represented the nation on numerous trips abroad – vanished, hardly to be heard from again.
On Sunday, he surfaced in The New York Times op-ed pages. By doing so, he followed his own pattern. On June 21, at his initiative, he was interviewed – in what was his first post-premier print interview – by Bret Stephens of the Times.
One could understand if some of his voters – who put their confidence in him – felt slighted by his choice of media forum. “Talk to us,” they might think, “not to readers of The New York Times.”
The Israeli public hasn’t heard much from Bennett since he left office and announced he was quitting politics. The nearly 275,000 people who voted for his party in 2021, many of whom still believe in his moderate right-wing path, never received an adequate explanation as to why he abandoned ship mid-journey, leaving the Yamina Party in shambles and them without a political home.
By quitting so suddenly and completely, he left Shaked and Matan Kahana in his party, as well as non-Yamina MKs Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser – who are also affiliated with the liberal right-wing – rudderless. Three of the four above-mentioned MKs and ministers are now out of the Knesset, and the fourth, Kahana, is No. 9 on a 12-person opposition list in the Knesset, far from any real source of power.
Had Bennett not thrown in the towel and instead contested November’s election as head of a party that included Shaked, Hendel, Hauser and Kahana, there is a good chance that this party would have crossed the electoral threshold and – instead of Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit Party – would now be the one holding the keys to the next government.
The Israeli public never received a satisfactory explanation for Bennett’s behavior. Yet there he was Sunday in The New York Times, extolling the virtues of his failed government.
What was in Naftali Bennett's op-ed?
In a self-congratulatory piece headlined “A Good-Will Government Was Possible in Israel,” Bennett repeated his narrative that with the country in a political stalemate after last year’s election, he took the courageous step of breaking from his political base and steering the country to safer and more stable shores.
He wrote about how his diverse government was based on the principle that 70% of Israelis agree on 70% of the issues – specifically regarding health, education and welfare matters – and disagree on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the problems of religion and state and the desired nature of the country’s legal system.
Bennett said his government focused on the 70% they could agree on, “as opposed to endlessly wrangling over the issues we don’t agree on.” He has said numerous times in the past that the other 30% could be left for another day.
That day came faster than expected.
While in his op-ed, Bennett placed the blame for the government’s collapse on “nonstop pressure from public protests and on social networks,” the truth puts him in a less flattering light. The government collapsed because Bennett – a good prime minister – proved himself to be a poor politician: He could not keep his eight-party coalition in order, let alone his six-person faction (he lost the support of Yamina’s seventh MK, Amichai Chikli, early on).
It is well known that you need to crawl before you can walk. Still, Bennett wanted to fly before he could run – at one time entertaining ideas of mediating between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, even as he could not keep Idit Silman and Nir Orbach happy in his party, something that could have saved his coalition.
But the problem with Bennett’s New York Times piece is less the content and more the optics.
Why speak to readers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut before you address supporters in Modi’in and Ra’anana? Because, perhaps, you want to drum up business. And what business is Bennett drumming up? Lucrative speaking engagements.
Back in September, The Jerusalem Post’s Zvika Klein reported that an agent was already putting out feelers to Jewish organizations for speaking gigs for Bennett, asking some $100,000 a shot.
There is nothing wrong with former prime ministers cashing in on the time they spent in office by speaking about it abroad. Netanyahu did it when he was out of politics from 1999-2002, and Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have both done the same. But it looks unseemly when these speaking tours are being organized while a former prime minister is still in the government, nay, is still the alternate prime minister.
Bennett formally resigned on November 6. Eighteen days later, The Australian Jewish News reported that Bennett would be coming to Australia in February to give lectures in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth as part of the Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal’s gala campaign events in honor of Israel’s 75th anniversary.
And that helps solve the conundrum about why Bennett would pen a piece in English for The New York Times instead of addressing his countrymen in Hebrew in any number of available outlets here. Today, the audience Bennett is most interested in reaching is abroad, because who in Israel is going to pay $100,000 to hear him speak?