Bennett and Netanyahu at the Knesset. February 2, 2014.
Bennett, who favors annexation of West Bank territory, and Netanyahu, who has called attention to the renewed interest in unilateral actions, at the Knesset. February 2, 2014. Photo by Emil Salman
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the formal head of Israel’s 33rd government, which will mark its first anniversary next week. But the real head of government and state, its leader and navigator, is Naftali Bennett. His Habayit Hayehudi party was the only one among the coalition partners that converted its election success into real power.

Bennett and his colleagues were elected to accelerate settlement construction in the territories, advance the West Bank’s annexation to Israel, and foil any peace arrangement with the Palestinians. Their secondary aim was to further the religious-Zionist community’s interests and strengthen its influence.

At the end of a year’s term, Bennett appears to be well on his way to achieving both goals. A Central Bureau of Statistics report shows that the number of construction starts in the settlements broke a decade-long record in the past year, increasing by 123 percent compared to the previous year.

Under Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel’s direction, public construction is funneled to the territories. The coalition passed the referendum law, which is intended to hinder or thwart any agreement with the Palestinians. The peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority are conducted in futile meetings and have so far posed no challenge to Habayit Hayehudi’s partnership in government.

Habayit Hayehudi led discussions on the draft law. It managed to preserve the privileges of the hesder yeshiva students and obtained an exemption from military service for hundreds of “prodigies” from the religious-Zionist yeshivas.

Netanyahu ran the cabinet meetings, but rarely got involved in state affairs, passing the time by sparring with U.S. President Barack Obama over his policy on Iran. The coalition factions acted over the past year like Bennett’s cheerleading team. Some did so enthusiastically – like most Likud MKs, who curry favor with the settlers – while others did so silently, in order to keep their seats – like the MKs from Yesh Atid and Hatnuah.

Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni failed to influence the state’s direction and served merely as a layer of makeup, intended to cover up a radical rightist government.

Bennett can look back with satisfaction. But Israelis have cause for deep concern. He is steering the state to further entrenching the occupation, losing the chance for peace and grave international isolation.