Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Taking stock after Bennett’s first 100 days in office (September 20, 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.

Q: If you had to pick one unique achievement registered in the past 100 days by Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid and their government, what would it be?

A: I would pick two. First and foremost is the pragmatic, businesslike way they and their fellow ministers have been running the government. Gone are the posturing, the bombast and the provocative life-style of Bibi Netanyahu. Bennett doesn’t turn every threat into a near-Holocaust to whip up voter frenzy. This prime minister doesn’t take his wife and his deadbeat son with him wherever he travels on Israel’s behalf. Nor does he take credit for everything his government does.

Bennett and Lapid sport a parliamentary majority of one mandate (on a good day!), yet are succeeding in passing a budget for the first time in three years. Bennett is managing covid without lockdowns, despite the high numbers. He is not afraid to plow ahead of the US FDA with a third, booster shot.

We can attribute this in part to good managerial style by a hi-tech millionaire and in part to the need to harmonize the most disparate coalition in Israel’s political history. So heterogeneous is this coalition--ranging from the Palestinian Islamist Raam via Meretz and Labor on the left to Bennett’s own far-right party, Yamina--that there is simply no sense in pressuring or challenging it on the Palestinian issue. It cannot conceivably come up with a consensus Palestinian platform other than maintaining the status quo and ‘doing good’ economically.

Paradoxically, perhaps, that fact renders Bennett’s task easier. Israel’s Arab neighbors are happy to meet with him. President Biden is happy to meet with him. Even Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas would presumably be happy to meet with him, except that Abbas, alone among Israel’s neighbors, is not on Bennett’s wish-list of meetings.

Meeting the Palestinian leader would alienate Bennett’s dwindling constituency of extreme right-wingers. They are already unhappy that he harmonizes so well with the Islamists and leftists in his coalition. What they don’t appreciate is that only thanks to the neutralizing effect of this unique Arab-left-center-right mix is Bennett immune from pressure from the US, Europe and the friendly Arabs to do something substantive on the Palestinian issue.

Of course, that moves us farther than ever from political progress with the Palestinians. Bennett, Foreign Minister Lapid and Defense Minister Gantz seem to think that they can compensate by offering both the West Bank and Gaza, under their separate Palestinian leaderships, economic benefits. They have yet to learn that ‘economic peace’ measures will not solve an ideological, geostrategic conflict. More on this below.


Q: And the second unique achievement?

A: The second major achievement of this government’s first 100 days is the presence in the Israeli governing coalition, for the first time, of an Arab party. Here a lot of the credit goes to a unique personality, Raam leader Mansour Abbas (not to be confused with Ramallah’s Mahmoud Abbas!) who has restricted his Islamist party’s coalition demands to local bread-and butter issues and a reduction in the spiraling Arab crime rate.

Can the right-wingers in key ministerial posts like finance (Liberman) and justice (Saar) provide Abbas with a sufficient return on his risky political investment to keep him from bolting and bringing down Bennett and Lapid’s government? It is no accident that Abbas was recruited to write the tribute to Bennett when the Israeli prime minister was selected by Time Magazine to the list of the 100 most influential people of 2021.


Q: Additional hundred-day achievements?

A: Bennett and Lapid have made major strides toward restoring close strategic cooperation and close leadership ties with the United States, Jordan and Egypt. Israel has resumed its traditional role as supplicant in Washington for aid to a repressive regime in Egypt. (Let’s face it, no Israeli government will jeopardize its strategic partnership with Egypt over Cairo’s abysmal human rights record.) The US and Israel are once again coordinating at the highest level regarding Iran--not necessarily agreeing, but at least coordinating closely. Israel’s relations with the Democratic Party, which were decimated by Netanyahu, are being repaired.

True, Egypt’s a-Sisi hosted Bennett in Sinai and not in Cairo. And the Israeli press was not invited. Indeed, nowhere--Cairo, Amman, Washington--has Bennett been feted as much more than a breath of fresh air after twelve years of Netanyahu. Perhaps after 500 days . . .

Bennett has also taken impressive steps in Israel’s battle with covid-19. He has pushed a third, booster vaccination for three million Israelis and counting. He has energized the effort to identify and coopt those hundreds of thousands who have refused even a first shot. And he has refused to order another lockdown even as a full return to schools and a month of holidays have caused covid numbers to rise. Israel, he says, has to learn to live with the virus.

Here Bennett has shown a readiness to take risks. So far his efforts have not backfired. But the jury is still out on covid in Israel--as everywhere else in the world.


Q: And the failures? There must be some . . .

A: The Gaza Strip is as incendiary as ever. While Bennett has largely abandoned his campaign rhetoric about a tougher military stance against Hamas (like many politicians who reach the top, he has bowed to realities and moderated many of his belligerent positions), his government has thus far proven incapable of stabilizing the Strip.

The Qataris are as willing as ever to buy a bit of peace and quiet in Gaza with their millions. Egyptian leader a-Sisi is also mediating. Yet a new round of escalated fighting is generally thought likely to erupt. One key reason is that, in the absence of any Israeli political movement with the Ramallah-based PLO under the aging but moderate Mahmoud Abbas, extremist Hamas can continue to claim overall leadership of Palestinians: in Gaza, in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem and inside Israel’s mixed-population cities that erupted during last May’s Operation Guardian of the Walls.

Hamas believes it scored vital points among Palestinians everywhere during the 11 days of Guardian of the Walls. It may be looking for another casus belli that is similar to the Netanyahu government’s mistakes in Jerusalem (Shaykh Jarrah, the Temple Mount) that spurred Hamas in May to launch rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Where could the spark come from this time? A dramatic prison escape some ten days ago by six hard-core Islamist terrorists, five of them from the pro-Iran Islamic Jihad, briefly provided Palestinians with the sense of victory over a fumbling Israeli security establishment that might ignite widespread violence. The escape was preceded by the killing of an Israel Police Border Patrol marksman along the Gaza border fence in a manner that also appeared to reflect serious mistakes in management, command, intelligence and judgement by the security establishment under Bennet’s overall leadership.

By last weekend, all six escapees had been rounded up--two in Jenin in the northern West Bank--without bloodshed. Strikingly, Arab citizens of Israel had refused to help the six fleeing Palestinians. A broader intifada-like crisis appeared for the moment to have been averted. But the Bennet government has its work cut out for it in repairing glaring lacunae in the functioning of the Israeli security establishment.

Q: Bottom line?

A: The primary benefit for Israelis provided by the Bennett-Lapid government’s first 100 days is immediate: the harmony and low-key tranquility it has broadcast to the public. The primary danger detectable at this early stage is strategic and longer-term. Precisely because of the broad spectrum of mutually-neutralizing political approaches embodied in the new coalition, it is further institutionalizing Israel’s slide down a slippery slope toward a volatile one-state reality with the Palestinians in which extremist territorial ideologies (Hamas, Bennett) prevail. Misguided Bennett government ‘economic peace’ initiatives don’t help, and may quickly backfire.

There are additional dangers that bear monitoring closely. Domestically, the devotion of the Raam Islamist party to this coalition of 61 mandates is, precisely because it is without precedent in Israeli politics, difficult to predict. Still close to home, an Islamist-engineered (by Hamas) war with Gaza is widely anticipated, with possible repeat ramifications inside Israel, in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank. Further afield, tensions could escalate with Iran and Hezbollah, nourished by the impression of an American military withdrawal from the region.

Any one of these prospective crises could bring down the fragile yet surprisingly harmonious and successful Biden-Lapid coalition and precipitate new elections, with Benjamin Netanyahu still waiting in the wings.