Bennett Ends His First 90 Days With Few Mistakes – and an Assist From Egypt

For Yom Kippur, the Egyptians surprised Israel once again, but this time for the better ■ Bennett and Sissi got along famously, not that the prime minister wanted to stay overnight ■ Lapid encroaches on Gantz’s turf

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Cartoon of Bennett and Sissi
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Naftali Bennett concludes his first three months as prime minister this weekend. It’s a random marker, like the American presidency’s “first 100 days.” If it has any significance, it’s in the prediction of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, to his fellow Likud lawmakers when the government was formed on June 13: “In two to three months this thing is breaking up.”

This government’s next milestone will be the passage of the national budget in the first half of November. So far there are no signs of a problem. The budget was approved easily, by a comfortable majority, in the first of three mandatory votes in the Knesset.

Occasionally a coalition lawmaker will flex his or her muscles. This week it was the turn of the chairman of the United Arab List, Mansour Abbas, who wrote the profile of Bennett for Time magazine’s “100 most influential people of 2021,” which was published Tuesday. Abbas won’t be the one to break up the government, his political career is too dependent on Bennett’s success.

The government is more than likely to sail over the budget hurdle, so critical to its survival. Then, barring unexpected obstacles, it will be impervious to being toppled until the first quarter of 2023.

After a successful visit to Washington, Bennett received a no less warm welcome by the Egyptian leadership in Sharm el-Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula. At the White House he knew more or less what to expect – the Democratic administration didn’t hide its delight in Israel’s regime change. But the warmth of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and his senior ministers caught Bennett and his advisers unprepared. Yes, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Egyptians caught Israel by surprise once again.

The schedule allotted 45 minutes for a tête-à-tête between the leaders, 45 minutes for a meeting between the teams and about an hour for lunch. The first meeting between Sissi and Bennett (with two interpreters) lasted three hours. When the minutes ticked by and the door still didn’t open, Edna Halbani, the Prime Minister’s Office’s veteran coordinator of international visits, asked a colleague in the Egyptian protocol department: What do we cut out? Nothing, he replied. He, unlike the guests from Israel, knew what his president was planning.

Sissi spared no gesture. He sent his most senior ministers – Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and intelligence chief Abbas Kamel – to the airport to greet Bennett with broad smiles.

Then there was the matter of the flag placed behind Bennett at the meeting. The Israeli flag raises a lot of unease in Egypt. Sissi, in his one public meeting with Netanyahu, in New York in 2017, refused to have the flag brought into his hotel suite. His predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, had hosted Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak before him, in Cairo with only the Egyptian flag in sight. Bennett received a crisply ironed Israeli flag inside Egyptian borders.

Here too there’s a story. A few days before the meeting, an Israeli security team and a production team came to Sharm. The Egyptian protocol official asked them for the size of Israel’s flag. The guests didn’t understand. Standard size, they said. He asked again. Again they didn’t understand. Same size as your flag, they said. He asked a third time.

One of the Israelis, thinking it might have been a language issue, called the interpreter. The riddle was solved. The meticulous Egyptian had wanted to know the shade of blue of the flag’s two stripes and Star of David: dark, medium or light, royal or navy.

The delegation was scheduled to fly back to Israel at 4 P.M. The plane departed at 7:15 P.M. Before their private meeting ended, Sissi asked Bennett so stay overnight, with his entourage. Sharm is beautiful, it has beaches, diving, coral reefs.

Bennett told him, joking: “Sorry, tomorrow it’s my turn to get the kids ready for school in the morning.” This too was an indication of the blessed sanity that has been restored to our lives.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett talking with United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas in the Knesset.Credit: Emil Salman

The honor was all his

On the Palestinian issue, Bennett braced himself against heavy pressure from the Egyptian president, as he had done before his meeting with Joe Biden at the White House. Washington didn’t give him a hard time. He was pleasantly surprised in Sharm as well.

Of course, the Palestinian issue came up in the meeting, but somewhat incidentally. “A Palestinian state would make both states thrive,” Sissi told him. Bennett replied: “I don’t see the feasibility of a peace process, but I plan to advance economic measures to improve the Palestinians’ welfare.”

Sissi didn’t suggest organizing a summit of three – or four – with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah as reported two weeks ago in the London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat. The Israelis responded that they were unfamiliar with the idea and that in any case Bennett has no intention of meeting with Abbas.

The report in the paper, which is generally seen as reliable, was apparently a trial balloon. It was shot down by the Prime Minister’s Office before anyone knew about it.

Back in the day, Netanyahu and his followers would endlessly boast of his “warm” ties with world leaders and dignitaries. This included Egyptian presidents, who maintained an especially cold peace with us but beneath the surface worked in perfect coordination with Israel’s governments. To Netanyahu’s credit, his grand mission – to sabotage the Palestinians’ path to a state – wouldn’t have succeeded without the loss of confidence and will of the leading Arab nations.

And yet, Bibi opted for the winking liar’s approach. From his Bar-Ilan University speech to Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” (both of which he drafted himself), Netanyahu always agreed on paper to a Palestinian state in the future. And now there’s Bennett, the first prime minister in a quarter century to say simply: No. I will never agree to a Palestinian state. I won’t negotiate, discuss anything or meet with anyone.

This is being received with great support in the Democratic White House and by the Arab world’s patron, Egypt. Sissi sees Bennett as someone who will gain major influence in Washington and thus help him with matters much more important to the Egyptians than the Palestinians. First come their regional water disputes and budgeting issues, the latter a concern amid the U.S. administration’s plan to cut aid to Cairo due to human rights violations.

Cairo studied the details of Bennett’s meeting in Washington and concluded that the new prime minister might become the darling of the new administration. No less important, he’s seen as an antidote for keeping Netanyahu away. So the Egyptians need him. If Bennett helps them solve the American money issue, Sissi can certainly help us solve the Qatari money issue.

Avigdor Lieberman, left, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett after a successful vote in the Knesset this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

One way or another, it was an unusual event. Young Bennett, without public support, who has less than two years left in office at best, was greeted with great honor. Sissi himself walked him to his car on the way out. Sissi’s office released videos of the meeting. The photo of the two, including that Israeli flag, appeared the following day in Egypt’s major newspapers.

In Israel, a debate is underway over whether Bennett has “entered the prime minister’s suit” – is he “filling it”? Some of the people expressing their opinions are fuller of themselves than he is.

The international community sees Bennett as a legitimate prime minister, ruling with a majority in a parliamentary system, an able politician who made it to the top from the bottom. They’re less bothered by the size of his party’s caucus. Enlightened European democracies have known plenty of strange parliamentary doings on the way to forming coalitions (though ours is certainly unprecedented).

The red carpets being laid worldwide for a prime minister from a tiny party are part of it. That is, world leaders are empowering him, showering prestige and legitimacy on him, because his predecessor’s return to power is their nightmare. It’s hard to blame them. Like most party leaders in Israel, they’ve had enough of Netanyahu, whose suit could hardly contain him.

The boundaries of bereavement

Bennett’s first 90 days were mistake free, almost. Considering his diverse governing coalition, he deserves a high mark. He hasn’t become swollen with self-importance, yet. He treats his ministers as equals. He supports them, both in private and public.

He’s a mensch. Barak once ran in an election with the slogan “Not a buddy, a leader.” Bennett is trying to be both.

Bitter political rivals like Benny Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman, with whom he had harsh run-ins when they were defense minister (“I’ll never forgive Naftali Bennett,” Lieberman said after being blasted by him), are working well with him. Lieberman, they say in the Prime Minister’s Office, is the most decent guy, the best.

Bennett is aware of the limits of his power. That’s why he let Gantz, while biting his lip and clutching his aching heart, go to Ramallah to meet with Abbas. That’s why he promised Lapid, his foreign minister and the designated next prime minister, that if he too wanted to meet with the Palestinian president, he’d agree to it. Luckily, Lapid isn’t into this, though he still supports a two-state solution.

Bennett meeting with President Joe Biden in the White House last month. Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO

In the security thicket Israel is entangled in, Bennett is stepping carefully and responsibly, light years from his bombastic declarations in his previous jobs. The goal he’s committed to, which no Israeli leader can take his eyes off, is to gain credit – mainly around the world – for any military conflicts. This goes for Gaza, the northern border, and for maybe much more distant operations that he wouldn’t be able to keep under wraps.

He’s doing this by showing restraint. The right wing, which accuses him of cowardice and hesitation, won’t provide him with Iron Dome missiles when the army is in distress. The United States will.

Bennett’s main mistake in public these past three months was his slip of the tongue in the phone call with Yossi Shmueli, the father of the late Border Police officer Barel Shmueli, when the prime minister confused their names. It was an unnecessary human error (albeit without malice) that's still scorching him. (People are fueling this fire “from all kinds of places around the world,” Bennett said this week.)

In the five interviews he gave the digital media, he apologized to the family, for the second or third time. Anyone who isn’t Netanyahu, the chronic pyromaniac, anyone who isn’t a member of the hate-filled Bibi-ist choir, and anyone who isn’t hostile to Bennett for other reasons would concede that his apology conveyed genuine sorrow and sincerity. But he then received another volley of diatribes and vilification from the bereaved mother. And just before Yom Kippur, too, if anyone cares.

It’s impossible not to mourn the death of Barel Hadaria Shmueli. It’s possible, and necessary, to probe the failures in that incident. And it’s okay to object to the behavior of the mother, Nitza Shmueli. Bennett’s apology dignifies Shmueli’s memory. Curses like “dog” and “a murderer with blood on his hands,” and threats like “we’ll meet again” are far from dignifying, to say the least.

Clearly, political feelings are involved here. Had the incident taken place in Netanyahu’s time, when the rules of engagement were identical, the mother would probably have used different words to express her pain and anger.

Speaking of 90 days, at the end of the first quarter of Netanyahu’s first term, on September 23, 1996, he ordered the opening of the Western Wall Tunnel behind the backs of the defense minister, the Jerusalem police and the head of the Shin Bet security service. That reckless decision was a wink to the nationalist, racist, messianic base that played a key role in bringing him to power. (“Netanyahu is good for the Jews” was the election slogan.) The decision ignited bloody riots.

Seventeen Israeli soldiers were killed. For nothing. Some of them were surely sons of leftist parents who had voted for Shimon Peres a few months earlier and saw his defeat as a disaster.

I don’t remember any father or mother talking like that to the new prime minister. True, there was no social media to bring the evil out of people. But there were newspapers, television channels, radio stations and protests by bereaved parents.

In addition to social media, one thing that certainly didn’t exist in those years was a cynical, uninhibited politician with a network of brainwashed activists and worshippers operating terror and escalating dangerous hate speech. This week we saw him on Facebook Live: quarrelsome, lying and inciting against the media as usual, urging on the fight against the “commissars sitting in the studios.” Yes, there are plenty of those, but they’re Bibi-ists, mouthpieces of their master.

And after all that, in television interviews on the eve of the High Holy Days, Bennett’s team made a fuss about the framed photo to be caught on camera in the background. The main picture wasn’t of Gilat and the children, but of two Israeli soldiers who died in the 2014 Gaza war, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, whose bodies are being held by Hamas.

Will Bennett, in a minimalist coalition, with diversity from the deep ideological right to left-wing Meretz and the United Arab List, be the one to reach an agreement with Hamas and bring the soldiers’ bodies and the two captive civilians home?

It’s hard to bet on that. With that picture, he’s raising Hamas’ price. He’s aware of this, and so are his partners. But he too has a limit when it comes to bending one’s principles.

Bennett and Egypt's Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Sharm al-Sheikh on Monday.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

Gaza first

The following is exactly what Bennett’s senior partner is working on. On Sunday morning, before the coalition leaders’ weekly meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office, Lapid walked over to Gantz. He briefed him about his plan to speak that evening at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University (formerly the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya).

When Gantz heard the speech’s title, “Economy in Return for Security in Gaza,” he made a face. Security c'est lui; the same for Gaza. Reaching an agreement is his baby. He has visited the United Arab Emirates a few times on this matter, met with Mahmoud Abbas and has been dealing with the issue intensively.

Lapid’s invasion into his domain seemed to him, well, like an enemy incursion. Lapid briefed Bennett that morning too. “When the plan is ready, I plan to bring it to the cabinet,” he said. “Be my guest,” Bennett replied.

It won’t be easy. Lapid’s proposal is sort of an improved version of previous proposals that were raised and struck down, most in the previous decade. Bottom line – there’s no one to talk to in Gaza. Tzipi Livni, then in charge of the diplomatic process, promoted a move in 2014 after the war with Gaza that summer. Lieberman suggested something in 2018.

The ingredients – enlisting the international community to prevent Hamas from strengthening, convincing the wretched, hungry Gazans to pressure the group to moderate, and funding an infrastructure investment by the donor countries. It all sounds tediously familiar.

“Israel hasn’t even submitted a paper addressing the Gaza problem,” Lapid told me on the eve of the holiday. “We haven’t offered any option but continued confrontations. I thought it was time to do something. At the Foreign Ministry we put together a real plan. I think there’s a positive proposal here. Let’s start talking about it.”

Lapid admits that the proposal is still on the drawing board. Or it can be said it’s like an unbaked dish taken prematurely out of the oven, maybe in time for the meal before the fast, maybe to become part of the political-defense discussion Lapid had been excluded from a little. He intends to keep working on it, with professionals like Barak, former army chief Gadi Eisenkot and national security strategist Uzi Arad.

Yes, Bennett is giving his ministers some rope, certainly to the leader of the large party that made him prime minister. What does he think about it? He isn’t enthusiastic about certain parts of the plan; the matter of the captives and missing soldiers, for example. For him, returning the soldiers’ bodies and the two civilians is a condition for making progress. Lapid was vague in wording the issue.

Right-wing officials like Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who said (also in a speech at the institute) that the plan isn’t realistic and Hamas will never forgo its efforts to strengthen, won’t sign it. The security cabinet is split on the issue and there will be a fight over it.

If it’s ever brought to a discussion and a vote, the one who could determine the issue is Gantz. As someone said to Lapid, “Good luck with that.”

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