Bennett's choice: Heed history’s call or Netanyahu’s sweet nothings

Bennett: Just say “no” to Bibi – and “yes” to a broad-based centrist coalition with Yair Lapid, even if it must stretch from your party, Yamina, and Sa’ar’s New Hope to Labor, Meretz, then Ra'am.

YAMINA PARTY leader Naftali Bennett addresses a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem last week. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
YAMINA PARTY leader Naftali Bennett addresses a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem last week.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
 Like a high-pitched sound my kids hear but I can’t, every Likud politician has heard what every reporter seems to have overlooked: the opening bell to the post-Bibi Likud primaries. They look like coalition negotiations; they’re actually power struggles over who will inherit Benjamin Netanyahu’s position, not just as head of the Likud but as king of the right wing.
Here is Naftali Bennett’s choice: he can heed that call, letting himself be seduced by Bibi’s false promises, and fail – because Netanyahu crushes any potential successors. Or Bennett can join Gideon Sa’ar and Yair Lapid in responding to a deeper, more resonant call, the call of Jewish history, of Israeli history, of Zionism. Bennett can be a modern Moses, leading Israel out of this election stalemate, which is starting to feel as endless – and demoralizing – as our 40 years of wandering in the desert.
I understand the calculation – and the appeal Netanyahu must be making. “Join us,” Bibi whispers, and you can lead the Likud and the nation for years... eventually. Until then, Bennett can do what Bennett does well – take a job, say defense minister, and dazzle with his thoroughness, pragmatism, creativity. Then, voilà, when Bibi retires, there won’t be furious Bibistas sworn to avenge Bennett’s betrayal of the big boss. And Israelis across the political spectrum will embrace Bennett as Bibi’s heir.
This lovely pitch is one big fat lie. It will send Bennett to Benny Gantzville – political no-man’s-land – but worse. Working alone, Bibi eviscerated Gantz; Bennett risks being gutted and filleted by the destructo-duo of Bibi and his wife, Sara.
Bennett should remember that when they worked together, and Bibi Netanyahu insisted on paying Bennett a symbolic sum, Sara Netanyahu reportedly forced Bibi to renege, insisting that Bennett repay the few shekels. Bennett should remember that he compared working for them to enduring anti-terrorist combat training. And Bennett should remember how Sara cornered reporters, allegedly spreading vicious libels about Bennett and others I won’t recycle here.
I usually avoid such low gossip, and feel cheapened even by referring to these stories. But the stakes now are too high. Bennett and the Israeli people have an alternate path, one that may look more risky initially, but ultimately could have huge payoffs – including inducting Naftali Bennett into Israel’s pantheon.
Naftali Bennett: Just say “no” to Bibi – and “yes” to a broad-based centrist coalition with Yair Lapid, even if it must stretch from your party, Yamina, and Sa’ar’s New Hope to Labor, Meretz, then Ra’am.
True, right-wingers and Likudniks will curse you. The deadliest opponent in opposition will oppose you – Netanyahu. But better to have him against you than over you as your boss.
And imagine the great payoffs.
IN 2013, a young, charismatic, thoughtful leader who was a true religious Zionist – not a Kahanist bigot perverting that label – ran a remarkable Knesset campaign. Representing a party with a delicious name, Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), his campaign commercials featured a range of Israelis celebrating the Israeli consensus, the magic that makes Israel, Israel: Shabbat, family, food, tradition, the home – and values. The excitement was so great that, at its peak, polls predicted 20 mandates.
Even though the results were more sobering, the message should be clear: The message you, Naftali Bennett, first used when you ran is the message we need today.
Be the prime minister – in rotation – of a national-emergency government protecting the Jewish home, while strengthening Jewish and Zionist values – which include respecting the stranger and cherishing democracy (after all, it began with the Bible!).
Set a focused agenda, putting the Palestinian issue aside while uniting mainstream Israel with a five-point program:
First, continue transitioning from a corona-scarred economy to a normal economy, while maintaining vigilance against this deadly disease. If possible, start tackling the biggest mystery vexing every hi-tech state: how to build a bulging-belly economy with a solid middle class, not a barbell economy, with most of the money held by the superrich while most people barely survive month to month.
Second, with a national budget, that old-new phenomenon Netanyahu shoved aside, institute careful strategizing, including multiyear budgeting. Run an efficient, transparent and effective government on multiple fronts, especially education, defense, social welfare, and health.
Third, diplomatically, build on Netanyahu’s impressive legacy: expand the Abraham Accords, work with the Biden administration to hog-tie Iran, resist bullying in international forums that mock the meaning of noble phrases like human rights, and reach out to other countries, bypassing America.
Fourth, with the Ra’am pragmatists, tackle the Arab-Israeli sector’s two greatest nightmares: crime and rotting infrastructure, showing how Zionists help all citizens defend themselves with good policing and improve themselves with proper permits. Create a new covenant with Arab-Israelis by instituting national service in their communities.
Fifth, while mandating that every Israeli schoolchild must learn basic Hebrew reading, math and Israeli civics, draft more haredim, even just for national service, too, and appoint Zionists to replace anti-Zionists on the religious courts.
Whenever you or any of your colleagues speak, reach out and inspire, don’t divide and conquer. Be tough in private, magnanimous in public. Don’t act like you are running to lead the Likud; play for history – and the Likud will soften and embrace you as Jabotinsky’s heir, Menachem Begin’s successor, not Bibi’s mini-me.
Naftali Bennett, this is your moment. Rise to the occasion, and raise all of us together, as a united country – and a united people.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.