Bennett family trip scandal erodes trust in leadership - editorial

If Bennett's wife and children are boarding planes, then why can’t everyone else? And if Israelis can travel, why can’t foreigners visit the country?

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, November 27, 2021. (photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, November 27, 2021.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)

No person is perfect, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is no exception. Nevertheless, the trip his wife, Gilat, and their four children took on Wednesday evening from Ben-Gurion Airport is no small scandal.

Just four nights earlier, on Saturday, Bennett was asked – at the news conference he convened to announce new restrictions due to the Omicron variant – whether Israelis should continue flying abroad.

“I don’t recommend that people fly abroad right now,” Bennett said, adding that despite the recommendation, a lockdown was not on the agenda.

Many Israelis heeded his advice. Some canceled trips despite the financial damage. Others postponed visits. Families that were supposed to reunite in Israel for celebrations – weddings, births and the like – had to move ahead without the guests from abroad, after the government decided that foreign nationals would not be allowed into the country for at least the next two weeks.

Bennett’s recommendation was heeded by people who don’t even know him personally – but not by his own wife and children. While the story is intriguing, it is the Bennett family’s personal business.

Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other top officials are seen following the completion of the COVID-19 'war games' exercise. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other top officials are seen following the completion of the COVID-19 'war games' exercise. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

Bennett tried to minimize the damage. The first attempt was by announcing his family’s trip – without him, it must be added – before it leaked to the press. It was a nice public relations attempt to get ahead of the story, but it did not end there. Bennett decided to issue two statements – one on Thursday and another on Friday – in which he admitted the family’s mistake, and added that he is open to criticism.

As some people have pointed out, Gilat Bennett is a private citizen and so are the couple’s four children. That is true, but not exact. They are private citizens, but they are also looked to as the family of the nation’s prime minister.

It is obviously within their right to fly abroad as long as the country is open and is allowing flights, but then the prime minister needs to update his recommendation. If his wife and children are boarding planes, then why can’t everyone else? And if Israelis can travel, why can’t foreigners visit the country?

Sadly, the answer is that it depends on what kind of foreigner you are. On Thursday, for example, Miss America arrived in Israel for the Miss Universe competition that will take place next Sunday in Eilat. She is allowed into Israel, but someone’s mother or father who is coming to celebrate the birth of a grandchild is not. Does that make sense?

Running a country during a pandemic is always going to be a balance between competing interests: the interest to protect people from the virus and keep them healthy, while at the same time allowing life to continue as normal as possible without harming the economy.

For people to follow the rules and regulations, though, they need to have trust in their government and its leaders. For that to happen, the leaders need to show the people that they are in the trenches alongside them – because if they don’t, the citizens will not obey the rules.

We saw that erosion of trust and confidence in the Spring of 2020, when then-president Reuven Rivlin and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted children who did not reside in their household for the Passover Seder. It was a time when the country was in lockdown, and hundreds of thousands of people were holding the Seder at home alone.

When people saw their leaders asking them to do something but then didn’t do it themselves, how were they supposed to feel?

Whether or not the Bennett family's trip is legal or even understandable, it is not right. It sends the wrong message to the public that will only make it more difficult for the prime minister and the government to have people follow guidelines the next time they are asked to. That undermines the entire effort to stop the spread of the virus – and that is the real danger.