Analysis

Another Day of Combat in the Israeli Government as Bennett Tries to Have It Both Ways

The education minister feels great in the government, and doesn't for a minute consider leaving it. Instead, he’s building an internal opposition of sorts.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, January 10, 2016.
Alex Kolomoisky

This is what another day at that bizarre creature called “the government of Israel” looked like: the defense minister accused the education minister of behaving childishly and irresponsibly, chasing Facebook "likes," after the latter had accused him and the prime minister of mental ossification and paralysis, in contrast to the creativity demonstrated by our enemies. This brought upon him insulting terms such as “delusional” and “copycat” from unknown sources at the Prime Minister’s Office.

One needn’t be overcome with horror. Things like this and even worse have happened before in Israel’s multi-party coalitions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon didn’t invent anything new. And yet, one should note the undercurrents in Tuesday's day of combat, waged by Israel’s senior cabinet members on the esteemed stage of the Institute for National Security Studies at its annual conference.

First of all, in addition to the two fractious ministers whose rivalry harks back to Operation Protective Edge, three important party leaders gave speeches at the conference- Isaac Herzog, the head of the Labor Party and of the opposition, Tzipi Livni, the head of Hatnua and a partner of Labor in the Zionist Union, and Yair Lapid, the head of Yesh Atid, who sees himself as a contender for the prime minister’s job. None of these speeches received media attention, other than some momentary flashes on some websites.

The media conversation was all on the right wing. First came Bennett, who gave a brilliant oppositional speech as if he weren’t part of the government and the security cabinet. He was followed by Gideon Sa’ar, who sharply attacked the passivity and incompetence, as well as Netanyahu’s chronic behavioral mode of being dragged along by events. This came on the conference’s second day. On Monday, Netanyahu received a cold shower from U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro and from IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who is turning out to be a tough character who is unafraid of voicing his professional truth, even when this is unpalatable to those who appointed him.

On Tuesday, the missiles came out of the hornets’ nest at Tel Aviv’s Land of Israel Museum, launched by his ministers and party members  (Oh yes, from opposition leaders as well, we almost forgot to mention). Luckily for Netanyahu, the conference ended with words by Ya’alon, who staunchly defended the policies of the cabinet and its head, in words that were reminiscent of those attributed a few hours earlier to Netanyahu’s associates.

Returning to Bennett and to what motivates him: like everyone else, he sees public opinion polls. These clearly show dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s performance in security matters (more than with Ya’alon). Likud seats are shifting rightwards, partly to Habayit Hayehudi, Bennett’s party. Others are going to Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.

So what does a leader of a right-wing party need these days? To sharpen, deepen and augment what separates him from the bigger sister party. For this, Bennett didn’t shy away from the loaded (since the Yom Kippur War) term “conception,” laying it at the government’s doorstep. Luckily he didn’t throw the terms “low probability” and “mishap” into the mix. Maybe he will at next year‘s conference.

The education minister feels great in the government. He doesn’t for a minute consider leaving it, even though it commits the arch sin of having that accursed “conception.” He’s building a crafty strategy of “walking with” and feeling “without,” an internal opposition, a “coasition." This is in direct contrast to his tactics during the last elections. Then he went to the city square with his guitar, and while he was strumming away and singing his votes wandered in great numbers to the Likud. But that was 2015. In 2016 and on, Bennett will use the guitar for other, more aggressive purposes. He may shatter it in fury like those wild sweaty rock stars at the height of their performance.