Hard Questions, Tough Answers - Naftali Bennett: Terrorist? Traitor? (May 23, 2022)


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: When PM Bennett paid a condolence call last week to the family of an elite-unit career soldier, a settler killed in action near Jenin in the West Bank, the fallen soldier’s son called Bennett a terrorist and a traitor. Bennett? Isn’t he a former head of the council of West Bank settlers?

A: Yes, and he remains as pro-settler as they come. He refuses to meet or negotiate with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas--a condition written into the founding agreement of his extremely diverse coalition. His preference for a possible ‘deal’ with the Palestinians is out-and-out apartheid (without that discomfiting designation, of course). He is politically to Netanyahu’s right.

Rather than preach restraint, like PM Ariel Sharon in his day, Bennett is pushing a pro-active Israeli police and military campaign to root out terrorists deep inside the Palestinian Authority. That’s how that elite fighter, whose settlement outpost Kida is equally deep inside the West Bank, was killed in the line of duty last week.

Here the point is that Bennett’s coalition of compromise and his personal lack of extensive political support leave him vulnerable, despite his political values, to attack from the right. Bereaved settlers would never treat the slightly less extreme Benjamin Netanyahu the way they treated Bennett.


Q: Didn’t prime ministers Sharon and Rabin suffer the same sort of insults when making condolence calls linked to the fight against terrorism? Sharon famously counseled restraint and eventually withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Rabin presided over the Oslo process that created the Palestinian Authority. What did Bennett do to anger settlers

A: Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon had strong, even heroic military backgrounds. They presided over more stable and homogeneous governments than Bennett’s. Yet they were attacked (and Rabin, assassinated) by the then-nascent right-religious bloc for initiating territorial compromise and exercising military restraint. Bennett, who lacks strong security credentials and is barely in control of a coalition that comprises a minority of leftists and Arabs, is clearly at least equally vulnerable due to his government’s inability to stop the current terrorist wave. This, despite the fact that he is building rather than dismantling settlements and rejects any sort of withdrawal from territories. His meek non-response to being cursed in Kida was disturbing.

So, he can’t win? Perhaps it’s a matter of character. Israel’s TV news programs aired the angry verbal drubbing Bennett received in Kida. Channel 12 took the trouble to rebroadcast a similar incident from some 20 years ago in which then-PM Sharon, when consoling a right-wing family for a terrorist murder, was angrily accused of being insufficiently patriotic and right-wing. Sharon quietly responded, with respect but with authority, that as prime minister his responsibilities dictated restraint and a political response. His grieving and vocal critics backed off.

Back then there was genuine warfare between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But there was also daily diplomatic contact, and Washington was deeply involved--elements that are missing today.

In Friday’s Yediot Aharonot, author and humorist Meir Shalev commented regarding Bennett’s performance in Kida: “[In contrast to Sharon,] Naftali Bennett was silent, and later even tweeted that the family had the right to express its feelings and it was his duty to listen. Well Mr. Bennett, if you are so small in your own eyes, [know that] you head the tribes of Israel. Put simply, respond to those who curse you. Politely, respectfully as circumstances demand, but in your capacity as prime minister. That is what you are, in case you forgot.”


Q: Sharon became fatally ill while in office and Rabin was murdered in office. Bennett, in contrast, seems extremely likely any day to witness the Knesset turning against his government. What does this contrast say about Israeli politics?

A: We are still very much in the thick of Benjamin Netanyahu’s political legacy. In order to oust Netanyahu from office a year ago his political opponents, led by Bennett and Yair Lapid, were obliged to patch together an impossible and unique coalition of eight diverse parties from the anti-Netanyahu right, the left, the center and the Arab sector. Some of these parties, like Bennett’s own Yamina, had in the previous elections hastily put together candidate lists designed to attract voters from very specific sectors, e.g., right-wing kibbutzniks and Arab women, with little vetting and little attention paid to political ideology and loyalty.

Small wonder that, before it can celebrate its first year in office, Bennett’s coalition is fraying at the edges. Almost weekly, a coalition MK bolts his party or threatens to do so, thereby tentatively robbing Bennett of his governing majority. The latest instance, last week, involved a defection threat by Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, an Arab MK from Meretz who claimed to be upset by developments on the Temple Mount and the disgraceful behavior of the police at the funeral of Al Jazeera TV journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Within days, Rinawie Zoabi returned to the Meretz fold, but only after an elaborate effort was mounted by Alternate PM Yair Lapid to hasten budgetary outlays for Arab causes and convince her that Bennett was a better bet than the alternative she threatened to usher in: Netanyahu. At least Rinawie Zoabi didn’t join Yamina’s Amichai Shikli and Idit Silman and Yisrael Beitenu’s Eli Avidar, all three of whom have left the right wing of Bennett’s coalition within less than a year.

(Had Rinawie Zoabi indeed bolted and a left-wing MK brought down the coalition, under the coalition agreement Lapid would have lost his chance to at least head the resultant caretaker government and Bennett would have remained in office. Little wonder Lapid made such an effort to rescue Rinawie Zoabi for Meretz. Such is the bizarre nature of the Bennett-Lapid coalition.)

Yet it was Bennett who was angrily taken to task by ultra-right settler mourners in Kida. Liberal TV commentator Amnon Abramovich captured Bennett’s unique dilemma in commenting, with a smirk, that here we have the small and weak political left ‘eating frogs’, yet it is the right--the Bennett government is further right on the Palestinian issue than any of its predecessors--that gets an upset stomach.

Rinawie Zoabi’s brief defection demonstrated just how dependent Bennett’s coalition is on left-wing and Arab members of Knesset. Until now, Meretz and Labor have toed the coalition line meekly even when obliged to approve right-wing initiatives. They have swallowed the total absence of official political dialogue with the Palestinians. With the coalition threatening almost daily to collapse and usher in new elections, they know they may pay a price at the polls for their loyalty to Bennett’s far-right policies.


Q: Bottom line?

A: Bennett is neither a traitor nor a terrorist. He is a genuine religious right-winger with a pragmatic political streak but no readiness to compromise ideologically. Unlike hawkish right-wing predecessors Begin and Sharon, and even Rabin the ‘security dove’, Bennett’s tenure in the highest office in the land has not revealed to him the necessity of compromising for peace.

Bennett’s silence when cursed by a settler in a distant West Bank outpost may be explained by his desperate need to shore up right-wing support in anticipation of new elections. Two weeks ago he accepted the resignation of Shimrit Meir, a moderate political adviser who had sought to position him as something of a centrist vis-à-vis the United States and Europe on issues like settlements. Ultimately, Meir gave up in frustration over turf wars with the extreme rightists in the Prime Minister’s Office while Bennett looked the other way. That was yet another bad omen for the coalition’s political stability.

The Bennett-Lapid coalition appears to be doomed. When it falls and new elections are mandated, there will be ample time to assess its successes and its failures. As of this political moment, we can conclude that the coalition will likely be viewed in retrospect as a unique attempt to fight back against the legacy of disastrous governance left by Netanyahu. Bennett, for all his objectionable ideological faults, will be able to take some credit for this even as his ill-conceived Yamina party, deservedly, disappears from the political scene.

Finally, it bears noting that a growing number of those Israelis, both civilians and IDF or elite-unit police officers, who have been killed and injured lately by West Bank Palestinian terrorists, are settlers. This reflects the settlers’ growing numbers and their religious motivation to serve in elite and combat units. It reflects Israel’s changing demographics and the IDF and Israel Police combat corps’ changing composition. This is food for thought for a future discussion.