Naftali Bennett’s unwitting UN blunder - opinion

The real scandal at the UNGA erupted over Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's statements on Israel's handling of the pandemic.

 Israel’s prime minister Naftali Bennett is escorted to the podium before addressing the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, at the UN headquarters in New York, US, September 27, 2021. (photo credit: JOHN MINCHILLO /POOL VIA REUTERS)
Israel’s prime minister Naftali Bennett is escorted to the podium before addressing the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, at the UN headquarters in New York, US, September 27, 2021.
(photo credit: JOHN MINCHILLO /POOL VIA REUTERS)

Many Israelis were too busy preparing for Simhat Torah late Monday afternoon to watch Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s televised address to the United Nations General Assembly. As a result, the reaction to his first speech before the international body was largely delayed.

Since the end of the holiday on Tuesday evening, the response has been increasing in ferocity with each passing news broadcast. That members of the opposition were quick to denigrate his performance was to be expected.

Ahead of his trip to the United States, reports were rampant that he would use the opportunity of his debut at the UN to distinguish himself from his predecessor. And sources in the know kept highlighting the fact that he wouldn’t be using props, for example, to illustrate his points from the podium.

Ridiculing former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for holding up diagrams to warn the world against Iran is nothing new; his foes have done so for years, as have comedians on the political satire program Eretz Nehederet.

It, therefore, came as no surprise when Bennett refrained from any pictorial gestures. Nor was it a shock that his oration didn’t resemble Netanyahu’s.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu draws a red line on an illustration describing Iran's ability to create a nuclear weapon as he addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 27, 2012.  (credit: REUTERS/KEITH BEDFORD)Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu draws a red line on an illustration describing Iran's ability to create a nuclear weapon as he addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 27, 2012. (credit: REUTERS/KEITH BEDFORD)

The trouble is that his attempt to shine as the “anti-Bibi” made him barely able to shift inflection while reading from the prepared text that he had clearly rehearsed. His words were measured, with pauses for effect. But it wasn’t the desired one.

IN FAIRNESS, Netanyahu is a hard act to follow when it comes to speaking in front of large crowds and TV cameras, particularly abroad. In this respect, Bennett deserves a break and even a bit of sympathy.

Though his command of English is fine, he simply doesn’t possess the level of charisma or experience that his nemesis acquired and honed over the decades. This is forgivable.

Even his hackneyed description of Israel – “a lighthouse in a stormy sea; a beacon of democracy, diverse by design, innovative by nature and eager to contribute to the world, despite being in the toughest neighborhood on earth” – could be excused. Ditto for the corny comment, “Israelis don’t wake up in the morning thinking about the conflict. Israelis want to lead a good life, take care of our families and build a better world for our children.”

Yes, the above fluff, accompanied by the reminder that Israel is the “beating heart of the Jewish people,” was par and pardonable.

Far less justifiable was his discussion of the country’s internal politics, which he introduced by citing the “two plagues that are challenging the very fabric of society at this moment”: The coronavirus and the “disease of political polarization,” both of which “can paralyze nations.”

The coupling was a neat rhetorical trick, aimed at touting his own recent rise to power through an unprecedented manipulation of the electoral system.

“In Israel,” he said, “we faced both [the virus and polarization], and rather than accept them as a force of nature, we stood up [and] took action. And we can already see the horizon.”

He continued, “In a polarized world, where algorithms fuel our anger, people on the Right and on the Left operate in two separate realities, each in their own social-media bubble; they hear only the voices that confirm what they already believe in. People end up hating each other. Societies get torn apart. Countries broken from within go nowhere.”

Then came the clincher: “In Israel, after four elections in two years, with a fifth looming, the people yearned for an antidote: calm, stability, an honest attempt for political normalcy. Inertia is always the easiest choice. But there are moments in time where leaders have to take the wheel a moment before the cliff, face the heat and drive the country to safety.”

The trite metaphor didn’t suffice. Bennett insisted on going into internecine detail.

“About 100 days ago, my partners and I formed a new government in Israel – the most diverse government in our history,” he declared. “What started as a political accident can now turn into a purpose, and that purpose is unity. Today, we sit together, around one table. We speak to each other with respect. We act with decency, and we carry a message: Things can be different.”

Compounding the platitudes so popular in Western jargon, he added, “It’s okay to disagree… It’s even okay to argue… [H]ealthy debate is a basic tenet of the Jewish tradition and one of the secrets to the success of the start-up nation. What we have proven is that even in the age of social media, we can debate without hate.”

There’s a hoot.

Aside from the fact that the UNGA was the wrong forum for an appeal to those Israelis angry with him for having “stolen” their right-wing ballots and handed them over to the Left, Bennett would soon discover that he had been too hasty in his rosy claims.

AS IT happens, the brouhaha, which was in full swing by the time of his return to Israel on Wednesday evening, was far from “debate without hate.”

Interestingly, the torrent from within his supposed kumbaya coalition had nothing to do with his failure to have mentioned the Palestinian Authority in his speech, though the possibility of a meeting between PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, head of the left-wing Meretz Party, is causing a crack in Bennett’s fragile armor.

No, the real scandal erupted over the premier’s statements on the handling of the pandemic, which – ironically – also involved Horowitz.

After praising Israel for being on the “front lines” of the battle against COVID-19, and boasting about his demand that the public receives a third dose of the vaccine or forfeit “green pass” benefits, he spelled out his policy for keeping schools open and the economy running.

“Lockdowns, restrictions [and] quarantines cannot work in the long run,” he correctly asserted.

He also bragged, somewhat disingenuously, about the national coronavirus task force, which “meets every day to bypass slow governmental bureaucracy, make quick decisions and act on them right away.”

Never mind that the task force hasn’t convened since the end of August, which is something that’s elicited much criticism, including from among supporters of the coalition. A meeting slated for Sunday might actually take place on schedule this time.

If it does, the discussion will likely center on what Bennett said at the UN that infuriated Horowitz, Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Nachman Ash, public-health services head Prof. Sharon Alroy-Preis, coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka and the rest of the celebrity COVID crew.

Their blood boiled at his having downplayed their status when he announced: “Running a country during a pandemic is not only about health; it’s about carefully balancing all aspects of life that are affected by corona, especially jobs and education. While doctors are an important input, they cannot be the ones running the national initiative. The only person that has a good vantage point of all considerations is the national leader of any given country. Above all, we’re doing everything in our power to provide people with the tools needed to protect their lives.”

POOR BENNETT. He must have thought that proving to be different from Netanyahu would provide him immunity from bashing back home. Daring to suggest that prominent health experts cannot dictate national policy apparently was a no-no from which he’ll have a tough time recovering.

It was the height of chutzpah for Horowitz – who was caught on a hot mic less than three weeks ago admitting that the “green pass” system was not based on epidemiology – to call Bennett’s remarks “unnecessary and unfortunate.”

Still, his adjectives were apt for the occasion. Indeed, Bennett had no business airing Jerusalem’s laundry in New York.