How Naftali Bennett played his cards right

IF YOU needed an example of how the political wheel works, all you had to do was watch the dramatic last-minute developments at the Knesset on Wednesday night.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett during a recent visit to the Syrian border  (photo credit: ARIEL HERMONI / DEFENSE MINISTRY)
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett during a recent visit to the Syrian border
In 1983, Ariel Sharon was ousted as Israel’s defense minister. The Kahan Commission – set up to investigate the massacres that took place in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon a year earlier – had found the Yom Kippur War hero responsible of ignoring the danger of bloodshed.
Sharon went from following a track that many Israelis believed would lead to the Prime Minister’s Office to the back benches of the Likud Party. For 17 years, from 1983 to 2000, the once-revered IDF officer wandered in the political desert: in some years he was just a Knesset member, while in others he was named a low-level minister of ministries like agriculture, housing, and even, for one period, without a portfolio.
Veteran politicians and journalists remember the days when Sharon would sit in the Knesset cafeteria all by himself at a corner table in the back of the room. Reporters and MKs would converge around other tables, gossiping and chatting with the latest rising star. But Sharon was on his own. To everyone he seemed like a politician in decline, someone who eventually – it was just a matter of time – would return to his farm in the Negev.
But political circumstances had a different fate in store for the man nicknamed the “Bulldozer.” After Benjamin Netanyahu lost the premiership to Ehud Barak in 1999, Sharon won the Likud primary and became leader of the party. Everyone was sure he was just there as caretaker, to be replaced as party chairman before the next election when a new, fresh and young leader would be elected. But Sharon proved to be a fierce leader of the opposition, fighting Barak’s peace efforts that ended in the failed summit at Camp David. When the Second Intifada erupted, Sharon was leader of the Right and easily defeated Barak in the 2001 election.
“Always stay on the wheel,” Sharon explained at the time, on how he managed to go from political leper to prime minister. Sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down, the thinking goes, but the important thing is to always hold on to the wheel.
IF YOU needed an example of how the political wheel works, all you had to do was watch the dramatic last-minute developments at the Knesset on Wednesday night.
Just minutes before the deadline to submit party lists, Naftali Bennett succeeded in convincing Rafi Peretz to ditch the Kahanists and join his New Right Party in a unified list. Peretz gave in to Bennett’s terms even as Netanyahu was actively pushing Bennett to do the opposite and to merge with Peretz and the Kahanists, a move the New Right leader rejected outright.
Bennett’s career trajectory over the last year has some similarities to Sharon’s. Fed up with rabbinic intervention, he decided last year to ditch Bayit Yehudi and establish the New Right. Despite flattering polls in the beginning, the party failed to make it into the Knesset after the vote on April 9, missing by a mere 1,300 votes.
In the weeks after that first election, Netanyahu fired him from the Education Ministry and Bennett was already considering his next move, thinking about going back to hi-tech or taking on a role as the head of a Jewish organization. But then another election was called, and the one-time prime ministerial candidate found himself fighting just to find a spot in his old party, ultimately named to the fourth slot on the Yamina list now headed by Ayelet Shaked. Ahead of him on the slate were his successor as Bayit Yehudi chairman, Rafi Peretz, and National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich.
To the public it looked like a tough blow for someone who just a few years before was viewed as a potential prime minister in the post-Netanyahu era. Now he was only able to grab the No. 4 position on what appeared to be a marginal religious party.
But Bennett played his cards right, and in November he succeeded in using the threat of supporting Benny Gantz’s efforts to form a coalition to pressure Netanyahu into naming him defense minister, thus jumping from the fourth spot on his party list to the top of Israel’s defense establishment.
And then came Wednesday night. Together with his close adviser Tal Gan Zvi, Bennett managed to break up the deal Bayit Yehudi had made just two days earlier with the Kahanist party known as Otzma, cornering Netanyahu and creating a merged list that he now leads with five of the top 10 spots members of the New Right. Quite the ride for someone who just a few months earlier was looking for a job.
In addition to emerging as the leader of the new right-wing list, Bennett with Gan Zvi also taught the seasoned prime minister a lesson in political dynamics.
Netanyahu’s future depends on the right-wing staying together, and retaining what was known as the “Bloc of 55” after the September vote. That bloc is what denied Gantz the ability to form a coalition.
Based on the independence Bennett demonstrated on Wednesday night – his blatant refusal to accept Netanyahu’s directives – the prime minister might not have the defense minister in his pocket after the March 2 election. If Bennett plays his cards right as a free agent and openly considers joining a Gantz-led government, the devastating consequences for Netanyahu could be the difference between remaining in office and standing trial.
At the very least, Bennett proved Sharon right this week: always stay on the wheel. You just never know where it will take you.
Anyone in Israel who has ever had to go to a hospital knows that any help can be useful: a phone call to the right doctor; a good word to the right nurse; a hot meal in the waiting room. Almost anything.
Rachashei Lev is the kind of organization that does that on a 24/7 basis. Their work takes place in two pediatric oncology departments in the center of the country: in Ichilov, and Sheba Medical Center.
I have seen firsthand how they provide care, love and support for sick children and their families, how they will do anything to get a child to smile or laugh. They will send volunteers overseas to accompany children going through life-saving treatments and even, when needed, help families raise the money to pay for it.
I write this because on Wednesday night, Channel 12 aired a report raising questions about Rachashei Lev. Much of what was reported was conflated, exaggerated and misconstrued. The reporter herself stated clearly that there are no suspicions of wrongdoing by the volunteer foundation.
I am familiar with some of the details of the stories that were told in the TV report and in the end, I can only testify to what I know and that is this: Rachashei Lev does important, life-saving holy work. Its staff is made up mostly of volunteers who give their time, money and energy to help the most vulnerable of children.
The hospitals where it works know this. At Tel Hashomer, for example, it has forged close strategic ties with the hospital’s director general, Yitshak Kreiss.
Could the organization have handled differently some of the issues that came up in the report? Possibly. But to undermine its amazing work over decades because of one news report seems to me to be more of a crime than anything else.