Will Naftali Bennett’s Passover promise be kept? - opinion

Right from Wrong: Terrorism has had less of an impact on the powers-that-be in Jerusalem than Silman’s exit.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting, March 20, 2022. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting, March 20, 2022.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In pre-Passover interviews on Monday night with three of Israel’s four TV networks, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett vowed never to rely on the Joint (Arab) List to prevent his now non-majority coalition from disintegrating.

His comment that “the Joint List is not in this government and will not be in this government” came on the heels of an outrageous video message delivered on Sunday by its leader, MK Ayman Odeh. In the clip, which was filmed at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, Odeh said: “Young people must not join the occupation forces. I call on the young people who have already joined… whose joining is insulting and humiliating… to throw the weapons in their face and tell them that our place is not with you. We will not be part of the injustice and the crime.”

Odeh’s subsequent “clarification” that he had only been addressing those Arabs who serve Israel’s security forces in east Jerusalem and the West Bank [Judea and Samaria] didn’t ameliorate the situation. Following complaints by politicians across the spectrum and the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, the State Attorney’s Office opened a probe this week into whether the prominent Knesset member’s words constitute incitement.

Bennett’s assurances that he would never accept the Joint List as a potential partner were made in the context of two major events: the surge in Palestinian and Arab-Israeli terrorism ahead of Ramadan, and the resignation of coalition chairwoman Idit Silman – of Bennett’s Yamina Party – over a battle with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz about his wanting to lift the ban on leavened goods in hospitals during Passover.

While the onset of the Muslim and Jewish holidays was the catalyst for both, the real reason for each is just as political as it is religious. Ironically, the murder of innocent people in the name of Allah and in pursuit of monthly stipends from the Palestinian Authority has had less of an impact on the powers-that-be in Jerusalem than Silman’s exit.

 POLICE OFFICERS secure the scene of Tuesday night’s deadly terror attack in Bnei Brak. (credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS) POLICE OFFICERS secure the scene of Tuesday night’s deadly terror attack in Bnei Brak. (credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS)

The latter lost Bennett his majority coalition, after all, thus posing a genuine threat to his continued rule – or at least to his remaining in the premiership until September 2023, when he is slated, according to the rotation agreement, to be replaced by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

AS A result, his holiday interviews were atypical. Rather than painting an optimistic picture or providing the customary Passover analogy about freedom from bondage, Bennett took the opportunity to lash out and defend himself against his foes in the opposition.

“There is no need to fall for every spin by our rivals,” he said, countering claims that he would do anything to avert the toppling of his house of cards, even if it meant enlisting some form of backing from the Joint List. “The ones in an alliance are Odeh, the Likud [headed by Benjamin Netanyahu], and [Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel] Smotrich; it’s an alliance of trolls.”

It’s debatable whether his protestations were sincere. But members of the national camp, many of whom voted for him, are doubtful. They’ve heard promises of this sort before and no longer buy them.

Two days before the elections of March 21, 2021, the fourth round in less than two years, Bennett swore that he would “never, under no circumstances … lend a hand to the establishment of a government led by [then-opposition leader] Yair Lapid, not in a rotation or any other way, for the simple reason that I’m a man of the Right and he’s a leftist, and I don’t act against my values.”

He made this declaration during an appearance on Israel’s right-wing Channel 20, now Channel 14 – the only station to which he did not grant a pre-Passover interview. This isn’t surprising, and not only due to its broadcasters’ negative attitude towards him and the government that he formed a year ago.

No, it’s probably connected to the fact that he went way beyond his verbal avowal at the time and signed a document pledging not to enable Lapid to become prime minister, and not to forge a coalition with the backing of United Arab List (Ra’am) Party leader Mansour Abbas and the Islamic Movement to which he belongs.

Speaking of which, a week earlier, he wrote a post denouncing then-prime minister Netanyahu for conducting talks with Ra’am, “a sister movement of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood… an extremist and anti-Zionist faction that has no place at all in Israel’s Knesset.”

In addition, he told his party members that Yamina would never consider helping to establish a government reliant on Ra’am, “neither with its support nor by its abstaining [in anti-coalition votes], or in any way whatsoever. The whitewashing of these terrorist supporters by Netanyahu and his agent [Religious Zionism lawmaker] Itamar Ben-Gvir is shameful. Rightists must be the first ones to put a stop to it.”

TO BE fair, Bennett is by no means the only politician in Israel or elsewhere to make grandiose campaign promises that he cannot, does not or will not honor. Still, he deserves a world record for the speed at which he blatantly backtracked on his commitments.

Which brings us to the third proclamation that he made, this one on the eve of the election. As a guest on the Channel 12 program Ofira & Bercovic, he announced that it “wouldn’t be democratic” for someone with the 10 mandates that he was polling to become prime minister. He said that he’d need at least 20 to justify taking the reins.

His ambition-spurred fantasy seemed to be shattered when his party won only seven seats. This number was subsequently reduced to six, when Yamina MK Amichai Chikli refused to jump on the left-wing bandwagon that Bennett and Lapid would end up concocting. Now, thanks to Silman, it’s down to five.

So much for Bennett’s own definition of “democratic.”

Nor did the election results stop him from pronouncements to his voters about the redlines that he was not prepared to cross. He said that he wouldn’t sit in a government with the Labor Party, which has in its ranks such parliamentarians as Arab-Israeli documentary filmmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana, who calls herself a Palestinian and once boasted on social media about refusing to stand in silence for the two-minute siren on Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers.

He stated, as well, that sitting with Meretz was out of the question, since the far-left party – like its Islamist counterpart Ra’am – supported a war-crimes probe against Israel by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

WHEN PUSH came to shove, however, he couldn’t resist rising to the premiership by virtue of Lapid’s having agreed to let him go first in a rotation agreement. This wasn’t a simple act of generosity on the part of the chairman of Yesh Atid, whose showing at the ballot box was far better than that of Bennett’s Yamina. It was, rather, a tactic to hinder him from being wooed by Netanyahu – the biggest winner – with a coveted ministry.

Though Bennett had promised not to serve under Netanyahu, Lapid couldn’t trust this to be the case. After all, prior to the April 2019 elections, when Bennett headed the now-defunct New Right Party, he backed Netanyahu all the way – despite the personal bad blood between them.

Not only that. He also took issue with the military credentials of former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, at the time a serious contender against Netanyahu for the premiership.

“I have nothing against Gantz on a personal level, but… he encapsulates a worldview that favors a tie [with Hamas]. Not… victory; just to come out in one piece from every campaign,” he told Ynet. “This is a worldview that has failed over the last 30 years.”

The rest is recent history. Before his voters had a chance to blink, Bennett not only took his measly number of mandates and formed a coalition with Lapid, based on a rotation agreement; he welcomed Ra’am, Labor, Meretz and Gantz into the mix.

It’s hard to take him seriously, then, when he says that he’ll never lean on Odeh’s anti-Zionist Joint List in order to stay in power. To reassure the public before Passover, which begins on Friday, he explained, “I’m not here for my ego.”

Despite the comic relief, he and his interviewers managed, somehow, to keep a straight face.