Lessons learned from the Bennett experiment - opinion

Contrary to what some are suggesting, the Naftali Bennet premiership experiment was not a success.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at Cyber Week (photo credit: Cyber Week)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at Cyber Week
(photo credit: Cyber Week)

Contrary to what many pundits have been suggesting in their eulogies for Israel’s collapsed government, the short-lived premiership of Naftali Bennett was not a successful experiment. Nor does it deserve accolades for surviving as long as it did.

The reason for this was twofold: a shared desire on the part of the coalition as a whole to prevent former prime minister and opposition leader Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu from remaining in or returning to the top job; and individual Knesset members’ fear of political exile in the event of another election.

Both provided the glue that kept the bloc of ideologically disparate factions in business. Until now, that is.

One thing that can be said of Bennett is that he managed, with a very small number of seats, not only to forge the ill-fated alliance but to reign over it. It was an unprecedented accomplishment that cannot be overstated.

Hopefully, however, it will be the last such foray into mish-mash minority rule. A majority of the public, on whatever side of the spectrum, should determine the general direction of the country.

 Outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and incoming interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid are seen walking away in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS) Outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and incoming interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid are seen walking away in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

This is easier said than done, of course, particularly with Israel’s electoral system and range of interest groups. It’s a tall order in any case, given all politicians’ penchant for campaign promises of the “read my lips” variety. You know, the kind that are as false as they ring.

Thus, purists of all sorts wind up disappointed in the officials they elect. Examples abound. Netanyahu, for instance, infuriated supporters who believed, or at least hoped, that he would honor his annexation vow.

Prior to the April 9 elections, the first of what will amount to five rounds in less than four years, Netanyahu claimed in a Channel 12 interview, “We are dealing [with the administration of US president Donald Trump] on extending Israeli sovereignty to Ma’aleh Adumim and other things. Everyone understands that the next term will be fateful for guaranteeing our security and our control over key territory in Judea and Samaria.”

Speaking to the conservative Makor Rishon newspaper during the same period, he stated that Likud would not form a unity government with Blue and White. He ultimately reneged on both declarations.

When he was unable to create a coalition then, and again a few months later – in the wake of the September 17 elections – he reached a rotation agreement with Benny Gantz after the third round held on March 2, 2020. Netanyahu went first. Due to his failure to pass a budget, the deal fell through and Gantz never got his chance at the helm.

Still, Netanyahu did serve with Gantz, his defense and alternate prime minister, despite previous protestations. Ditto with regard to his promise to annex swaths of Judea and Samaria. He went as far as to announce that it would take place on July 1.

It didn’t. The explanation that emerged for his about-face was the brewing treaty with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The Abraham Accords would end up being signed on September 15, 2020.

The fourth time that Israelis were forced to return to the polls, in just under two years, was on March 23, 2021. When the upshot of this repeat performance was yet another impasse, Bennett and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid came up with the constellation that dissolved this week.

In spite of Yesh Atid’s having garnered more than double the number of Yamina mandates, Lapid let Bennett take the first rotation. It seemed peculiar, to put it mildly. In hindsight, it was the right move for Lapid, who must have figured that he’d let Bennett take the flak for any screw-ups.

The silence of the left

THE OTHER ODDITY was the relative silence about the maneuver from the left-wing punditocracy, which had considered Bennett a dangerous extremist, not to mention the first religiously observant, kippah-wearing prime minister in the history of the Jewish state.

It quickly became apparent that this was due to the prominent inclusion in the government of Meretz, Labor and the Islamist Ra’am (United Arab List) parties, among others.

Yet even they had trouble dismissing the legitimate sense of betrayal felt by right-wing voters, many of whom had shunned Bibi and the Likud for being too liberal. There’s irony for you.

Because all this recent history feels almost ancient at the moment, it is worth reviewing Bennett’s pronouncements in the lead-up to and on the eve of the elections in question.

 “Netanyahu is spending millions of shekels on spin, saying that I’m going to crown Lapid prime minister,” he told Boaz Golan of the right-wing Channel 20 (that has since become Channel 14). “So, first of all, I’m informing the public in the simplest way... never and under no condition will I aid in the establishment of a government headed by Lapid – not a conventional one, not through a rotation and in no other way, for the simple reason that I am on the Right and he is on the Left, and I do not act against my values.”

To prove that he wasn’t merely pandering to his base, and in a challenge to Netanyahu, he whipped out a pre-prepared affidavit. Holding it up for the camera to zoom in on, he read aloud, “I will not enable Yair Lapid to become prime minister, not even in a rotation, and you [Netanyahu] have to commit not to establish a government with the votes of Mansour Abbas and the Islamic Movement.”

Before signing the document, which he did with a touch of drama, he said that he would leave it in the studio for Netanyahu to ink as well.

This was by no means the only declaration that he promptly overturned upon becoming premier.

A few days before the elections, he appeared on the popular Channel 12 show Ophira and Berkovici and said humbly that if he were to receive only 10 seats, it wouldn’t be “democratic” for him to become prime minister.

So swiftly did he violate these pledges that hindsight wasn’t required to witness the phenomenon. For those on the Right who didn’t cast their ballots for Yamina, it was jaw-dropping enough. But his actual backers, among them some serious Bibi-bashers, were at a loss. All they could do was call him a “fraud” and a “conman” who handed their votes to the Left without batting an eye.

After all, with only seven mandates he formed a coalition with Lapid and welcomed Abbas on board. These were whittled down to six shortly thereafter, when Yamina MK Amichai Chikli refused to go along with the double-crossing of Yamina’s constituents. The number subsequently decreased to five, with the exit of former coalition chair Idit Silman.

It was all done legally. Nevertheless, it wasn’t very ethical. To borrow Bennett’s own description, it wasn’t “democratic.”

Let the whole episode be a lesson to all concerned, especially Netanyahu, in what not to emulate. Campaign professions that get too specific are an exercise in futility. They are also on record. Permanently.

What’s needed at this juncture is for party leaders to provide an ideological overview of their platforms. This is a manageable task for the ultra-Orthodox, Arab and far-left candidates who make no bones about their aims. It’s a harder one for parties whose sole agenda is getting Netanyahu out of the game and for those in the center overly focused on surveys.

Another moral of the story applies to the electorate. We Israelis would do well to opt for a large party.

The choice will likely boil down to Yesh Atid and Likud. Ballots placed elsewhere are liable to bring us back to the same bloc deadlock that we wish to avoid.