The recently-departed Israeli PM was not so skilled in maneuvers as his supporters had hoped.
Naftali Bennett’s main claim to fame is that he is not Benjamin Netanyahu (aka Bibi). Bennett has in fact spent a good part of his political career trying to overthrow the Likud kleptocrat who ruled Israel for 12 years. Ideologically there is little that separates them. Both are militant hyper-nationalists dedicated to defending their ethno-state – against Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. Both are known for steadfast opposition to any meaningful Palestinian sovereignty, which effectively means they support an expanded Israel that includes the West Bank.
Indeed, Bennett served under the old war horse Netanyahu: first as his chief of staff, and then variously in the finance and education briefs. Their falling out came when Bennett was dismissed from Cabinet in June 2019. Bennett describes himself as being ‘more rightwing’ than Bibi – although not so prone to manipulation and ‘using the tools of hate’. He promised Israelis a government that would restore the nation’s ‘national dignity’ following the scandals of the Netanyahu regime – and prosperity based on peace and quiet. How wrong can you be!
Having – like Bibi – spent parts of his childhood and early adulthood in the US, Bennett entered politics in 2006. Since then, he has hopped from party to party on the far right. His core demographic is the growing settler communities on the West Bank. Having created a new political alliance, Yamina (Hebrew for ‘rightwards’) in 2019, he pulled off his greatest success: a coalition of anti-Netanyahu parties from across the political spectrum (including, for the first time, Arab politicians) to force out Netanyahu as Prime Minister in June 2021. According to the agreement forged at the time, Bennett would be PM until 2023 – to be followed by the centrist Yair Lapid until 2025.
It was a risky gamble. Both the times and the makeup of Israeli politics were against him. His militant opposition to all things Palestinian quickly peaked with confrontations with the Israeli military and police over access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem – a site considered sacred by both Muslims and Jews. The unrest quickly spread to the West Bank, with all the makings of another intifada. The Israeli military carried out ‘shoot first’ raids in places like Jenin – where Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh (known as the ‘voice of Palestine’) was shot by what one UN official described as ‘a seemingly well-aimed Israeli bullet’. With little fear of being held accountable, the Israeli police then attacked Shireen’s funeral procession. A hasty investigation by the Israel Defense Forces came up with the expected whitewash. As the Jewish progressive weekly Forward put it, Bennett believes ‘Zionism means never having to say you are sorry’.
Meanwhile Bibi was working hard to undermine Bennett’s fragile coalition, understanding that there was nothing to be gained from appearing ‘soft’ on the Palestinians. Israeli conservative and religious political parties are thick on the ground dominating the country’s proportional electoral system. Bibi and his Likud circle are masters at gaming it and luring the ambitious and the opportunistic into their camp – with promises they even occasionally keep. By April 2022, a split in Yamina had left the fragile coalition without a majority. Bennett has announced he will step down ahead of a fresh election this autumn – Israel’s fifth in three years. In the meantime he is set to be succeeded by Lapid. But Bibi is now centrestage again, and he’s in a good position to ‘unite the Right’ – a winning formula in Israeli politics. It will, once again, be the Palestinians who lose out – and even a marginalized Bennett is unlikely to lose any sleep over that.
LOW CUNNING: In spite of the failure of the likes of Bennie Gantz and Ehud Barak, opponents of Netanyahu rallied round Bennett in the belief that the opposition needed an alpha-male with military credentials to defeat the defining figure of 21st century Israeli politics. Yet his skills of command have proved less adaptable to the deal-making needed to sustain coalitions.
SENSE OF HUMOUR: The telegenic Bennett is well known for his cynical mocking of Tel Aviv liberals with glib one-liners like ‘the term “demilitarized Palestinian state” is an oxymoron’.
Sources: Haaretz; Forward; The Times of Israel; The Jewish Chronicle; +972 Magazine; The Jerusalem Post.