It took an Israeli-Arab lawmaker from the opposition to pay homage to the sacrifice Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made this week on behalf of the West Bank settlers.
Bennett “gave up his prime ministerial seat so he would not lose the opportunity to deepen the occupation,” MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List) told the Knesset plenum Wednesday before its initial vote to disperse the parliament.
In so doing, she referenced the complex game of chicken that had taken place between two Israeli politicians who consider themselves to be the leaders of the Israeli Right – Bennett and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
To push the government to the point of collapse, Netanyahu swayed opposition right-wing parties for whom support for Judea and Samaria is part of their political bread and butter, to abandon it in a do-or-die gamble.
They voted against a directive, which is renewed every five years, that allows for Israelis living in settlements in the West Bank to enjoy the same residency rights as those within the country’s sovereign borders. Their action had teeth because Bennett lacked support within his own coalition for the directive.
The directive was rejected, leaving close to half a million Israelis in danger of losing their residency rights by the end of June, when the directive expired.
Effectively, in the name of bringing down the government, Netanyahu and the parliamentary right-wing opposition made a de facto Knesset declaration that the settlements are not part of Israel.
It was a high-stakes gambit on Netanyahu’s part, and it worked.
There were only three ways to fix the problem. Bennett could shore up support within his own coalition for the directive. Netanyahu, who heads the Likud Party, could cave and lead right-wing opposition parties to support the directive. Lastly, Bennett could collapse the government prior to the June expiration date, thereby leaving the directive in place until a new government with a new Knesset is formed.
As the clock ticked, it was Bennett who fell on his political sword, as he called for elections, explaining that he could not afford to let the directive fall.
It had been a Solomonic dilemma for Bennett, an avowed right-winger who began his political life as the director-general of the Yesha Council. In an unusual move given that his right-wing Yamina Party had garnered only seven seats in the last election, Bennett became prime minister. He did so by cobbling together parties from the Left, Right and Center of the political map, including an Israeli-Arab party.
Even before Bennett announced the end of his one-year reign this week, his government was already in trouble, as parliamentarians within his own party fell sway to arguments that they sat in a government that was harming and not helping the nationalistic camp. Among the issues of concern were the government’s policies with respect to West Bank settlements.
In attacking the government in the plenum this week, opposition MK Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the Religious Zionist Party, accused the government of not being right-wing enough.
The public must now see “who is the real Right or the fake Right that sold out its principles for personal gain,” Smotrich said.
This is a government, Netanyahu told reporters this week, that “does not care about Judea and Samaria.”
WITH POLLS showing that over 60% of the voting public prefers right-wing parties, one of the political debates over who leads the country also now centers on the question of who the leader of the Right is and who has the best scorecard on Judea and Samaria.
For those on the Left, like Touma-Sliman, there is no difference between Bennett and Netanyahu.
“The only change that occurred under this government was to shift the names of the prime ministers, from Netanyahu to Bennett,” she told the plenum on Wednesday.
“Everything else was the continuation of the policy of settlements and expanding them,” she charged.
But was she correct? It is difficult, of course, to compare a prime minister like Bennett, who was in office for a year, with Netanyahu, who was in office for 12, not including the three years he served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999.
Netanyahu had a boost in his last four years with respect to the settlements because he did not need to worry about the White House, given the Trump administration’s support for Judea and Samaria.
Bennett, in contrast, spent his year in office needing to act in consideration of US President Joe Biden, who is opposed to the settlements.
One way to gauge the policies of Netanyahu compared with those of Bennett is to compare Bennett’s first year with Netanyahu’s first year of dealing with the Obama administration, which also opposed the settlements.
Another measure, particularly when it comes to issues like settlement building and plans advanced, is to compare an average from the Netanyahu years with Bennett’s first year.
The left-wing NGO Peace Now did such a comparison and concluded that Bennett in his first year had been better for the settlements.
Below is a comparison of Bennett versus Netanyahu on issues relating to the West Bank and the conflict.
Bennett has not spoken of his acceptance of a Palestinian state but has allowed Defense Minister Benny Gantz to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas twice in the last year, once in Ramallah and once at Gantz’s Rosh Ha’ayin home.
Netanyahu, in contrast, delivered his famous Bar-Ilan speech in which he accepted the idea of two states for two peoples and met with Abbas within his first year. He never rescinded that pledge.
During Netanyahu’s last year in office, he reaffirmed his commitment to a Palestinian state, when he accepted the peace plan published by former US president Donald Trump. Netanyahu was careful to clarify that this Palestinian state would not have an army and that the IDF would operate on its behalf when it came to border security.
Meeting with Abbas
Bennett has not met with Abbas since taking office last year and has no plans to do so.
Netanyahu, in contrast, met with Abbas within the first half-year of assuming the premiership and again in September 2010. The lack of communication between them was due mainly to Abbas’s refusal to speak with Netanyahu, while the latter almost consistently called for such meetings to be held.
There has been no peace process toward the creation of a two-state resolution to the conflict, and Bennett has not been interested in engaging in one.
Netanyahu, in contrast, agreed to engage in a peace process under both the Obama and the Trump administrations.
When he became a minister in 2013, Bennett was the first high-level politician to begin speaking about the need to unilaterally apply sovereignty over Area C of the West Bank.
Despite this, Bennett has stated from the start that he would accept the deal Netanyahu made to suspend his pledge to apply sovereignty over the West Bank settlements in exchange for the ability to normalize ties with Arab states under the rubric of the Abraham Accords.
In a speech Bennett gave to the Lindenbaum seminary in Jerusalem last month, Bennett said that with respect to the issue of sovereignty and Palestinian statehood, “we can wait for a couple of years, nothing will happen.”
Settler housing construction
Construction of settler homes continued at a normative pace under Bennett in his first year, compared with Netanyahu, who imposed a 10-month moratorium on the building of all Jewish homes in the West Bank during his first year after reassuming office.
Building data have not yet been compiled for the full length of Bennett’s first year in office, but Central Bureau of Statistics information shows that, based on the first three-quarters of that year, ground was broken for 2,111 settler homes. It’s a number that is higher than the number in most years that Netanyahu was in office. During the last three-quarters of Netanyahu’s tenure, for example, there were only 1,537 housing starts. According to Peace Now, Netanyahu’s half-year average on housing starts stood at 911 compared to the 1,488 such units for which ground was broken during Bennett’s first half-year in office.
Advancement of housing plans
Bennett advanced plans for over 7,292 settler homes during his first year in office, according to Peace Now, which noted that it is higher than Netanyahu’s average of 5,784 housing units, based on data the organization has collected since 2012. In that first year, Netanyahu advanced plans for 7,325 homes. Plans for settler homes rose above that number only in 2019 and 2020, when Netanyahu was running for office.
Bennett eliminated the policy of holding four meetings a year of the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria. But even Netanyahu had let go of that practice, which he himself had initiated.
Netanyahu froze the issuance of public tenders for West Bank settlement housing projects in the first two years after he reassumed office. Bennett pushed forward with their publication. According to Peace Now, tenders were issued for 1,550 settler homes, compared to the average of 1,343 tenders a year that were published under Netanyahu.
Bennett allowed for the creation of six illegal outposts, during his first year in office, authorized one fledgling community and advanced the legalization of two others.
During his tenure, the Justice Ministry issued a legal advisory that these illegal communities could be connected to the national utility infrastructures that exist in the West Bank.
Earlier this month Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced that she planned to include money for those unauthorized communities in the 2023 budget, a move that is now unlikely to happen in light of the elections.
Netanyahu, in contrast, pledged to the US in 2009 that he would remove 21 of those outposts, in keeping with promises his predecessors had made. He did not carry through on that pledge and began a process of legalizing some of the 100 outposts as new neighborhoods of existing settlements. He moved to legalize 22 outposts in this way, of which 17 completed their authorization during his tenure, according to Peace Now data. Two outposts were slated to become new settlements, and three were authorized as new settlements.
No new outputs were created during his first few years, but 71 outposts were created during his tenure, many of which were farming communities. With one exception, Netanyahu never green-lighted the mass authorization of the outposts. In 2017 the security cabinet created a committee to work on the authorization of the outposts, but it never received the needed support and disbanded.
Netanyahu also bowed to judgments by the High Court of Justice and allowed for the evacuation of a number of outposts and outpost homes built on private Palestinian land, such as Migron, the Ulpana neighborhood and Netiv Ha’avot.
Globally speaking, the outposts were unauthorized communities, when Netanyahu entered and left office. The same was true for Bennett.
Bennett and Netanyahu both support a plan to build 3,414 setter homes in an unbuilt area of the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement, known as E1, but neither gave final approval to it.
The project initially advanced under Bennett, then he froze it under pressure from the US, and then he allowed it to move forward again. Netanyahu, in contrast, didn’t start to move on the E1 project until he had been in office for over two years. Then he froze the proceedings, and then he pushed them forward again during the election cycles after 2018.
Bennett resurrected the defunct security barrier, originally designed in 2002 during the height of the Second Intifada to protect Israelis from Palestinian suicide bombers.
This week the IDF began to rebuild a 45-km. stretch of the barrier in northern Samaria, replacing its wire fencing and security apparatus with a nine-meter concrete wall. Bennett took action, however, only after a slew of terrorist attacks earlier this year claimed at least 18 lives.
The project itself was largely frozen by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, but Netanyahu never completed it and allowed it to fall further into disrepair. He also shortened the barrier’s route from over 800 km. to 525 km.