Likud, religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox (haredi) politicians are telling the public that the Bennett-Lapid government has been a disaster, a catastrophe of historic and unforgivable proportions. They are exulting in its apparent downfall.
I don’t share this perspective at all. I sense that the Bennett-Lapid government answered the desire of many Israelis for leadership that is neither radical Left nor radical Right, neither anti-religious nor obnoxiously religious-coercive, neither feeble nor fierce. And it had real achievements.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s scorecard is respectable. His complicated and bifurcated government passed a responsible budget for the first time in four years. The budget deregulated important sectors of the economy, while investing in healthcare, education and defense without significantly raising taxes.
Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana’s nascent restructuring of the kashrut and conversion systems, and the government’s proposed changes in the military draft law relating to haredi yeshiva students, were for the state religious bureaucracy’s own good as well as the healthy future of Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy in this country.
I am hopeful that some of Kahana’s adjustments will stick, and that the principles they are based on (transparency, competition, moderation) will prevail over the long term even if Kahana doesn’t have the chance to fully implement them.
And in this regard, who wants a reprise of the Netanyahu-haredi governments of the past decade? Who wants another Netanyahu government anchored by cantankerous haredi politicians who will seek to roll back all of Kahana’s necessary adjustments in matters of religion and state? Who wants to see another set of narrow-minded haredi chief rabbis elected in 2023? I don’t.
And who wants more coronavirus lockdowns, which was Benjamin Netanyahu’s heavy-handed way of handling the virus crisis. This cost the government billions of shekels in support payments and lost tax income, and led to renewed crisis between the broad public and the haredi and Arab sectors (which defied the lockdown and undermined its effectiveness). Bennett wisely took another approach, keeping the economy and schools open despite the tough fourth wave of the pandemic.
The Bennett-Lapid government also demonstrated that there was life for Israel on the diplomatic stage after Netanyahu. Foreign and defense policy doomsday did not descend upon Israel following Netanyahu’s departure from Balfour – as Netanyahu and his followers stridently warned.
Of course, it was predictable that Israel’s enemies would act to test its new leaders and to upset the Abraham Accords momentum, which explains the current wave of Palestinian terrorism.
But Bennett has demonstrated principled continuity in Israeli foreign and defense policy. Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz acted swiftly to step into Netanyahu’s big shoes and maintain the diplomatic momentum, while improving Israel’s ties to Jordan, Egypt and the US.
Neither Bennett nor Lapid has the finesse and gravitas of Netanyahu on the world stage. But leaders of the current government have embarrassed nobody. Bennett, in particular, has been occasionally eloquent, unabashedly proud of his right-wing and religious roots, and both polite and defiant in appropriate measures and contexts.
Bennett also reignited a discourse of respect and appreciation in Israel-Diaspora relations, without backing away from his right-wing and religious principles.
As for Likud’s slogans of delegitimization against the government – mainly that it relied for support on the anti-Zionist Islamists of Ra’am (United Arab List), meaning that Bennett has no right to be prime minister – well, this too was poppycock.
It was Netanyahu who first proposed bringing Ra’am into government as a Likud coalition partner. If Bennett managed to reach the prime minister’s office with Ra’am as a responsible partner (yes, Mansour Abbas of Ra’am has acted and spoken responsibly!), and with only six seats for his own party in parliament while Netanyahu couldn’t do so even though he held 30 seats – then perhaps Bennett should be credited with superior political wizardry, not chicanery.
Most of all, the Bennett-Lapid government brought stability and sanity to Israeli politics for a decent period.
There has been much less vituperation between government ministers despite the deep ideological chasms, say, between Ra’am and Yamina, or Meretz and Yamina. Almost nobody called settlers “criminals,” haredi Jews “parasites,” right-wingers “fascists,” and left-wingers “traitors.” Even Avigdor Liberman mostly kept his demagoguery in check.
INDEED, BRINGING about a climate of relative internal political calm was perhaps the greatest contribution of this government. The coalition may have been an incongruous creation stemming from force majeure. But the restraining of Israel’s raging political fevers after 32 months of furious campaigning was a good thing.
And Israel needs more of it. Israeli politics need more such healing time. It still needs fetters on its political passions, which had gone wildly out of whack.
A September 2022 election, which will be bitterly and vitriolically fought and yet most probably will lead to another political stalemate – is the last thing Israel needs.
And thus, it is truly tragic to see this government fall apart over a gratuitous, superfluous and stupid spat between Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Coalition Chairwoman Idit Silman regarding hametz on Passover in hospitals.
This is the issue on which Horowitz and Silman each decided to fall on their swords? To prove to their home bases that they were sufficiently anti-religious, or defiantly national-religious, respectively? How incredibly idiotic!
Of course, there are question marks hanging over this government’s performance relating to the struggle against Iran and against hostile Palestinians. It remains unclear whether Bennett was prepared to act in defiance of American and world opinion and to actively sabotage the imminent Western nuclear sellout to the Iranians.
Bennett made it clear that Mahmoud Abbas’s decrepit government is not a peace partner for Israel, and therefore that a two-state diplomatic scenario is on hold. But his government failed to act to preserve what is left of Israel’s de facto sovereign control in Area C. It did not dismantle illegal Bedouin and Palestinian settlements that purposefully impinge on strategic routes, nor strengthen Israeli settlement in the Jerusalem environs and other critical/consensus areas.
As world leaders like to say, “the status quo is not sustainable” – in the sense that Israel must advance its interests in Judea and Samaria and not just push back against Palestinian assaults in the territories and in international institutions.
Nevertheless, I think that the Bennett-Lapid government (or at least the remainder of Bennett’s scheduled term) is worth saving, somehow. I don’t easily see the political constellation in which the government can survive another year plus, but I would be happy for this to work out, again somehow.
And in the final analysis, I’ll admit that I have been very pleased to see a prime minister of Israel wearing a kippah – Israel’s first openly religious/Orthodox head of government.
When meeting US President Joe Biden, Bennett quoted Isaiah 49:18 about the sons and daughters of the Jewish people coming back to rebuild its ancient and indigenous homeland. At the UN, Bennett spoke of “bringing the heritage of Torah to life in modern-day Israel,” and quoted a pithy Jewish saying (attributed to Rabbeinu Bahya and previous Lubavitcher rebbes) that “a little bit of light dispels much darkness.”
I think that this is what Bennett’s government has done until now: Bring Israel a little bit of light.
The writer is a senior fellow at The Kohelet Forum and in the research department of Habithonistim: Israel’s Defense and Security Forum. His diplomatic, defense, political and Jewish world columns over the past 25 years are archived at davidmweinberg.com