Opposition could be the right move for Bennett, if not Israel - editorial

By not entering into coalition government, Bennett will finally be able to step out of Netanyahu’s shadow and present the nation with his own right-wing vision.

NAFTALI BENNETT at the Defense Ministry this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
NAFTALI BENNETT at the Defense Ministry this week.
In 1962, after losing a close gubernatorial race in California, Richard Nixon held what he proclaimed would be his last press conference and memorably told reporters they would not “have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
Outgoing Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, when he takes leave of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his way out of the government and into the opposition, could be forgiven for paraphrasing the former US president and telling Netanyahu that he won’t “have Bennett to kick around anymore.”
Indeed, it does seem that Netanyahu has taken a certain pleasure in sticking it to Bennett.
He did this during the last election campaign, telling supporters that the only reason he appointed Bennett defense minister was to neutralize him politically. And he did it again during the current coalition negotiations, toying with Bennett and giving his Yamina Party an offer they couldn’t accept: the education and Jerusalem portfolios, and an unnamed deputy ministerial post dealing with issues important to the religious Zionist camp.
These offers may have appealed to the old National Religious Party (NRP), which for years was content in dealing with issues important to their constituents: building synagogues, mikvaot (ritual baths) and – later – settlements.
But Bennett burst onto the political scene in 2013, wanting to break out of the cage that former governments had pushed the NRP into. No longer would the national religious camp under his leadership be content with religious issues: They wanted to play in the big leagues and impact matters beyond religion and education. In the process, Bennett hoped to widen the party’s appeal beyond a narrow national religious-voter base.
This formula succeeded at first, with Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi Party winning 12 seats in the 2013 elections, up from the seven won by the two offshoots of the now defunct NRP four years earlier.
But that was his political peak. In 2015, Bayit Yehudi dropped to eight seats, and in the first round of the 2019 balloting, Bennett – whose ambitions to spread well beyond a religious constituency led to the formation of the New Right Party – failed to pass the electoral threshold and enter the Knesset.
Chastised, he was number four on Yamina’s list in September, headed by Ayelet Shaked, which only won seven seats; when he led the list in the March elections, it dropped to six seats.
It is with that dowry of six seats and a downward trajectory that he entered negotiations with Netanyahu. The prime minister, who after the agreement with Blue and White no longer needed those six seats for a coalition, offered little. Bennett, as of Wednesday evening, had said “no,” and the pathway to the opposition was paved.
This may not necessarily be the best for the country, but it could turn out to be the right move for Bennett.
Why might this situation potentially be good for him? Because finally he will be able to step out of Netanyahu’s shadow and present the nation with his own right-wing vision. As a minister, he had to temper his criticism of the prime minister and the government’s actions. He criticized, but could only go so far. If he does end up really going to the opposition, Bennett will have the opportunity to build himself and his party up, presenting themselves as genuine alternatives on the right to Netanyahu and the Likud.
On the other hand, this would be a potential loss for the country. Because like him or not, Bennett – in the various ministries he has served – has proven to be a dedicated, energetic minister; a doer, a bitzuist, someone who thinks creatively and gets things done.
As defense minister, he took aggressive action against Iran in Syria to keep the Islamic Republic from setting up a permanent base there, and he deserves credit for getting the security establishment heavily involved in Israel’s fight against COVID-19. He pushed for massive testing, and set up hotels where quarantined patients would be housed. He took initiative and pushed hard for steps that turned out to be wise. Bennett, who had his eyes on the Health Ministry, would have served the country well in that position – or any other ministry.
By the time the government is sworn in on Thursday evening, lots can still happen and decisions can be overturned on an hourly basis. For now, what may ultimately prove a smart move for Bennett personally might be a loss for the country.