It is safe to say that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's first speech at the UN General Assembly was mainly an English test in a contest with Benjamin Netanyahu, and that he passed it with relative success.
All those who have been fortunate enough to attend the General Assembly realize that a huge gap exists between the low interest these speeches trigger at the UN hall and across the world, as opposed to the excessive level of interest they create in Israel.
Even before the COVID pandemic disrupted our lives, the press and visitors' area at the UN General Assembly used to be completely empty until an overly excited delegation of Israeli journalists would waltz with fanfare. Bennett's speech was broadcast in New York, but was meant for the audience back home. It could have been equally recorded in Jerusalem with the same green marble as background. This also somewhat explains the fact that the vast part of the prime minister's speech was dedicated to internal issues.
But this utter cynicism is problematic. The participation in the international game, even if it's mainly a symbolic act, still bears some importance. This clarifies that despite its lack of respect for the United Nations and the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Israel still aspires to be a part of the multilateral system, even if it plays the role of the grumpy teenager who keeps saying: "No one here gets me."
This doesn't mean the speaker must be a prime minister; a foreign minister will also do. However, it should be noted that these visits, in part, are meant to allow public, and especially secret meeting with other leaders.
But Bennett sought to prove to us and to himself that he's capable as much as Benjamin Netanyahu, and by doing so he fell right into the trap of being constantly compared with his predecessor. After passing the UN's big English test, maybe it's time for Bennett to step out of Netanyahu's shadow.
And in order to free himself of Netanyahu's shadow, Bennett should have listened to his own speech. "Inertia is always the easiest choice. But there are moments in time when leaders have to take the wheel a moment before the cliff, face the heat, and drive the country to safety," Bennett said about the establishment of his government, "the most diverse government in our history."
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Inertia also happens to be the best title for Bennett's speech. From begging to end, his remarks were riddled with the most used Israeli clichés. "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, not a single word about the Palestinians and a lot of words on Iran. Exactly everything that Netanyahu would have said. The same messages, just without childish props – as Bennett had promised.
Because inertia, or what Pierre Bourdieu called habitus – the power that limits thoughts and actions to our known dispositions – is Israel’s greatest problem today. One can replace the prime minister and make the government more diverse, but the reality on the ground and the talking points remain as they were. From the smallest things, like the ceremonial rules of the PM’s trip, which includes the pre-boarding show and the small X where he would stand when speaking to reporters, to policy itself. Bennett is caught in that same “easy choice,” and has so far not taken any independent wheel. Although he is a fresher, nicer version with no indictments – and this is no small thing – the principles of Bennett’s polices on all truly important issues are identical to Netanyahu’s. More than ever, his UN speech underscored this.
A leader who truly wants to “face the heat and drive the country to safety” must dare to challenge the deep national paradigms – chiefly among them burying the head in the sand and the childish aspiration that – just like in the UN speech – there really won’t be any more Palestinians within us and around us.
This too, Bennett, is a virus that “if left unchecked” could have “devastating effects” on society. The entire part of the speech dedicated to the importance of inner-Israeli unity can be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Bennet is not the man that will take us there. He is busy establishing his status as an updated version of Netanyahu.