Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett? (June 1, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett?

Q: On Sunday evening, May 30, Naftali Bennett officially cast his lot with Yair Lapid’s anti-Netanyahu coalition. The goal was to form a right-center-left-Arab coalition, a “government of change”, before Lapid’s Wednesday night constitutional deadline. What could thwart this effort?

A: Netanyahu, still transition prime minister, was on Tuesday still trying desperately to dilute the Lapid-Bennett coalition below the 61-mandate mark by poaching or intimidating right-wing MKs away from Bennett’s Yamina party and Gideon Saar’s New Hope party. As he spouted fabrications and dangerous slander to the public on prime-time TV, his desperation was written large on his face. At the last minute, he had offered premiership rotation arrangements to both Bennett and Saar. His only condition, ostensibly, was that he and Sarah could continue to dwell in the PM’s Balfour St. residence. His only problem was that no one believed him anymore. Netanyahu has lost all credibility.

Returning to Bennett, the new man of the hour, there were many obstacles in addition to Netanyahu. Last-minute coalition talks scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday could run afoul of the egos and/or interests of the heads of no fewer than eight parties that were pledged in principle to the new coalition. Did Benny Gantz and Blue-White get their fair share of portfolios, considering that at eight mandates they are the second largest party in this coalition? Is the sacred balance between the right (Bennett and Saar) on the one hand and the center (Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the largest party, Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, Gantz) and left (Michaeli’s Labor, Horowitz’s Meretz) being maintained in the division of spoils within this egalitarian power-sharing rotation arrangement? Will Bennett serve for 18 months before turning power over to Lapid, or for two years?

And where are Mansour Abbas and Raam, the Arab party that is pledged to this coalition and whose four mandates are vital for the coalition to get to 61? Does Abbas want a ministry or a Knesset committee chairmanship? How hard and firm is his commitment in light of the Arab-Jewish tensions that surfaced in the course of the recent Gaza war? How will he get along with the new coalition’s ultra-nationalist right-wingers, Bennett, Saar and Liberman?

One last-minute trick Netanyahu could invoke in desperation might be to resign, thereby promoting Gantz--still alternate prime minister under the coalition agreement of a previous election--to the premiership in the outgoing coalition. How would this affect Gantz’s calculations regarding more junior membership status in a Lapid-Bennett coalition?


Q: Who is Naftali Bennett and why is he first in rotation for the premiership in this government when he brings only six mandates to the coalition? Why is Lapid, with 17 mandates, yielding to Bennett?

A: Bennett is the only party head who ran in the last election on a platform allowing for membership in either coalition--Netanyahu’s or Lapid’s. Others on the right--Saar, Liberman--pledged only to remove the indicted Netanyahu from office. This gave Bennett leverage. He negotiated with both Netanyahu and Lapid, always stipulating that his price for joining any coalition was the premiership, awarded to him first in a rotation arrangement. Bennett’s ultimate declared reason for opting for Lapid was that Netanyahu had failed to put together a coalition of 61 whereas Lapid had succeeded. Netanyahu’s only remaining rationale, Bennett stated Sunday evening, was to “take the entire country to his private Masada”.

The alternative to failure by both Netanyahu and Lapid would, Bennett explained, be a fifth round of elections, which he resolutely rejected. And not without reason. His endless zigzags over the past two months of maneuvering between two opposing political camps seemingly wore out his welcome in both. Were elections held today, his Yamina party would probably score below the four-mandate threshold.

Naftali Bennett will be Israel’s first Orthodox prime minister. As a former director general of the Council of Settlers, the “Yesha Council”, he is as right-wing as they come. On the other hand, he lives not in a settlement but in bourgeois Raanana, and his wife is secular. He is also a high-tech-exit millionaire twice over who believes he knows how to manage. His relations with other emerging senior ministers--Gantz at Defense, Liberman at Finance, Michaeli at Transportation--are poor, meaning he will need to display leadership qualities we have yet to witness. That’s not easy for a man on a dazzling, erratic ego-trip.

Perhaps most important, Bennett’s ideology will be sharply muted in the government he forms by the very nature of the coalition. His government will feature left-right balance, a veto for Alternate PM Lapid, and agreement to leave most controversial issues aside in the interest of leading the country beyond Netanyahu and rescuing the political system he has been decimating. Then too, covid, a huge budgetary overdraft, a backlog of high-level civil service appointments, and the last war with Hamas will keep Bennett’s government busy enough in the short term.


Q: And beyond the short term? Assuming a post-Netanyahu coalition led by Bennett and Lapid takes office, how do you assess its longevity?

A: Assuming they succeed in launching their coalition, Lapid, Bennett and partners will be hard pressed to hold onto every wayward MK from eight different parties. Their emerging government’s built-in contradictions--between left and right, peaceniks and settlers, socialists and capitalists, Arab Islamists and Jews of every ilk--present a political minefield for Netanyahu to exploit in an effort to topple them. And Netanyahu has proved in the past that he is as sharp a politician when in the opposition as when he is at the helm.

In normal times, with multi-party coalitions that are ideologically much more tight-knit, coalition discipline begins to fritter at the edges after a year or so. Only an accomplished leader like Begin, Rabin and Sharon and, yes, Netanyahu, can hold a faltering coalition together. This will be the ultimate test for Bennett and Lapid.

At the personal level, Bennett almost certainly wants to leverage his premiership to a point where his political stature rises far above six or seven mandates. But has he finally stopped zigzagging between the rival camps?


Q: Bottom line?

A: We have to wish Bennett success. Not because, with a mediocre leadership record and a mere six mandates (he had seven, but one already defected), he deserves to be prime minister. But because he and Lapid and their coalition partners are hopefully navigating Israel’s way out of the political hellhole that Netanyahu maneuvered it into.

And we have to keep our eyes on Netanyahu and his political henchmen, particularly Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, who can delay the swearing in of a new government for the coming week while his patron searches desperately for ways to stay in power. Meanwhile, large hostile crowds are demonstrating daily outside Bennett’s home and that of Ayelet Shaked, who is number two in Yamina and is slated to be interior minister but has made no secret of her hesitation to leave the Netanyahu camp. Who organized them?

On Sunday, pro-Netanyahu social media produced a photo-shop picture of Bennett with an Arafat-style kafieh on his head. The last leader in Israel to be targeted with this image was Yitzhak Rabin, shortly before he was assassinated by a right-wing extremist. Bennett and Shaked are both now surrounded by extra security, guarding them against the anger of the very right-religious electoral base they have been cultivating. A mere nod from Netanyahu could launch violent demonstrations, or worse.

Since the day after Israel’s last elections, I have been predicting that parliamentary deadlock would send us to a fifth round in the summer or fall. Whatever the long-term prospects for the Lapid-Bennett coalition, I will not be disappointed if in the short term they prove me wrong. Their coalition promises not only to replace Netanyahu. It will comprise a revolutionary degree of Arab-Jewish parliamentary cooperation, no direct ultra-Orthodox influence on issues of personal status, and lots of women ministers. It deserves support from anyone desperately concerned about Israel’s future.

P.S. Lest we forget, this Wednesday the Knesset elects a new president of Israel. A win by Isaac (Bougie) Herzog will be a win for the same pragmatic, relatively liberal camp that forms the center-left of the prospective Lapid-Bennett government. A win by Miriam Peretz will reflect the ongoing power of the ultra-nationalist religious camp. Stay tuned.