As Israelis brace for our third prime minister in barely a year, and our fifth election in three years, let’s say it loud and clear: todah rabah (thank you) Naftali Bennett. You, your erstwhile partner Yair Lapid, and every member of your governing-by-the-skin-of-our-teeth government, earned your place in history. All hail Bennett as the Pacemaker Prime Minister, in all four meanings of the word.
First and foremost, thinking of “pacemaker” as trendsetter, scout, trailblazer, Bennett taught the Israeli people an invaluable lesson: there’s life after Bibi. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had us bamboozled. Even many who disdained him were addicted to him, fearing anyone else as prime minister. Bibi was Franklin Roosevelt to Americans in the 1940s, or Winston Churchill to Brits then, too – the forever-leader who was always there – and, for all his day-to-day faults, super-reliable under the gun.
Suddenly, blessedly, in one year, Bennett showed even the most die hard Likudnik that Israel’s security is secure, Israel’s stock market can soar and difficult decisions can be decided, even without Bibi. When Israel needed to defend itself against terrorists, against lying UN and human rights libelers, against insidious EU diplomats, Bennett and his team, especially Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, behaved steadily, admirably, reassuringly – precisely what we needed.
On the biggest issues facing Israel, from managing Palestinian, Iranian, and COVID-19 threats, to continuing our economic and technological miracles, these leaders showed that Israel works because of Israel, not because of Bibi or Bennett or anyone else. No one is irreplaceable. These public servants – not self-servants – also led, protected and served without Bibi’s divisiveness, demagoguery and deviousness. As a result, Bennett not only set the stage for the Beyond Bibi era, he helped set a new tone for a kinder, gentler but still formidable post-Bibi Israel.
Bennett’s government wasn’t just a harbinger, promising a brighter tomorrow, it delivered that tomorrow today. This government “took the lead and set an example” in numerous ways. Its big broad coalition approach taught a new math, a muscular moderate, 70-30 formula every democracy should master. Healthy polities benefit by emphasizing the 70% that unites us rather than the 30% that divides us.
This big broad coalition also illuminated two long-standing blind spots governing the 80-20 relationship between Israel’s Jewish majority and Israeli-Arab minority. Many Jews realized that having Arabs as governing partners not only can keep Israel safe and secure, but make Israel safer and more secure. Simultaneously, many Arabs realized that you can accomplish a lot more for the community – from fighting crime to improving education – by working with your fellow Israeli citizens democratically, pragmatically, than by demonizing your own country with empty shouts about apartheid, racism, and colonialism.
A pacesetter also must be a caretaker. Bennett’s government did “establish and maintain a rhythmic activity” – most dramatically by passing a long-long-overdue budget. Netanyahu’s failure to pass this basic instrument of governance demonstrated how dysfunctional his government had become, how selfish he had become in grasping the reins of power for far too long – for his sake not the people’s sake. But more than that, for 12 months, Israelis could taste what every democratic citizen should be able to take for granted – namely a grown-up government that takes responsibility to solve problems, not a juvenile, dodgeball government that repeatedly shirks and finger points and shoulder shrugs.
The Meron disaster, along with Netanyahu’s unpatriotic war against the justice system, epitomized the Likud-haredi disease of an incumbent government perennially pretending to be outsiders ill-served by the government they themselves had run for a decade. Despite a lineup filled with rookies, Bennett’s cabinet acted like seasoned veterans, solving problems not assigning blame.
Finally, in righting the ship, in demonstrating an impressive calm and surprising maturity, this coalition government “steadied” the nation’s “heartbeat.” True, these last few weeks have been fraught. True, I wish Bennett had been better at translating the governing prose of what they were doing daily into some inspirational poetry that might have moved and united us.
But from the moment Yair Lapid made the stunning, selfless, Hall-of-Fame-for-patriots-deserving move to allow a partner controlling far fewer seats to lead, Israelis have been able to unwind a bit. We started detoxing from the brittle, angry, bullying, us-versus-them tension of Netanyahu’s final two years, with its four stalemated elections and its desperate-to-avoid-prison prime minister.
In his previous iterations as a hero in the worlds of commandos and computer start-ups, Naftali Bennett had to be more of a swashbuckler, a risk-taker. In his short, happy reign as prime minister, No-folly Naftali avoided any major disasters. Moreover, Prime Minister Bennett embodied this key democratic and Jewish tenet: Ethics of the Fathers says heroes control their impulses, that deploying such self-restraint beats conquering cities.
After being worn down by Bibi Netanyahu’s increasingly childish government-by-tantrum, how lucky we were to have the Bennett-Lapid break, with a pacesetting government – and Pacemaker Prime Minister – often as fragile as a cardiac patient menaced by a bum pacemaker, yet nevertheless allowing us all to catch our collective breaths before yet another election and probably lots more demagoguery to come.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.