Analysis |

Bennett Flees to His Masochistic Comfort Zone: Under Netanyahu's Sway

After three days of riots between Arabs and Jews, the right-wing leader may have realized that top people in his party weren't really with him. So now he's talking with Bibi, who loves to humiliate him

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Cartoon May 14, 2021
Credit: Amos Biederman

Naftali Bennett could have become a prime minister of historical stature. A one-time opportunity fell into his hands: to head a governing coalition whose likes Israel has never seen, from the Islamic party the United Arab List to his own Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope. The ingredients were in the pot, the fire was burning and all that remained was to stir, season and serve.

But Bennett collapsed. The man who in the last election campaign aspired to replace Benjamin Netanyahu because of the “most dire management failure, equivalent to the Yom Kippur War debacle,” as he put it, lost his moxie after three days of riots.

He phoned Yair Lapid, who now holds the mandate to form a new government, and the other party heads in the pro-change bloc and told them: It’s over. Because of the “situation,” he’s returning to the arms of Netanyahu, whose weight has landed on him many times before.

Bennett’s justifications were ridiculous; mainly, that the “situation” means the army will have to go into the mixed Jewish-Arab cities. A government with the left, and with Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List, won’t be able to agree to that. It would find it hard to cope.

But it would have coped. After such a government had arisen, none of its parties would have been quick to topple it. Abbas could have abstained on certain votes but the government would have remained. Bennett has never had to face challenges of leadership. This was the first time, and he fled the battlefield to his masochistic comfort zone: under Netanyahu’s sway.

Bennett may have realized in recent days that he was a general with no army, that his No. 2, Ayelet Shaked, wasn’t really with him, that others in his party were ready to scatter. He may have even seen opinion polls showing that his electorate, or at least a clear majority of it, opposes teaming up with the left. If that’s the case, he can go ahead and say it as it is. We’ll understand.

His return, with his tail between his legs, to the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc led by Likud, doesn’t guarantee a government. It heralds a fifth election, which Bennett has vowed to prevent.
The chances of there being a direct vote for prime minister are now bigger. United Arab List may back the proposal, which, with the right-wing bloc’s 59 of the 120 Knesset votes, could win majority support.

Bennett was promised a return as defense minister after the current government’s power-sharing agreement is undone. Shaked would be foreign minister. Most importantly, they would both be integrated into Likud, and with great conditions. Or so they hope, because, you know, if Netanyahu promises something, he’s sure to do it.

Lapid – in a planned public appearance whose content changed due to the situation – effectively launched his campaign for prime minister Thursday night. The latest moves by Bennett, the person the Yesh Atid leader was willing to crown, only put him in a better position in the race.

Naftali Bennett waves after leaving a meeting with leaders of parties opposed to Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Hamas is good for Bibi

At the end of the eight days of the November 2012 air offensive, Operation Pillar of Defense, Netanyahu sought a victory picture – in vain. He had just ended his first military operation as prime minister when he agreed to Hamas’ cease-fire proposal. The result: Hamas militants took to the streets of Gaza City, firing into the air, handing out sweets and waving the green flag of the Islamist organization.

Netanyahu’s mouthpieces called the news desks, which broadcast the images live. They screamed and rampaged. “The boss” wanted the guilty party, and they demanded something irrational: not to report what was happening in the Gaza Strip.

Incidentally, at the end of that operation, Habayit Hayehudi soared to 15 Knesset seats in the polls after a nearly unknown politician named Naftali Bennett won the party primary. His popularity was the result of his effective criticism, from the right, of Netanyahu’s handling of Gaza.

There would be a remake two years later, again starring Netanyahu, Bennett and Hamas, and with the same sense of a missed opportunity, at the end of Operation Protective Edge. Bennett, now a very active cabinet member, inveighed against the handling of the tunnels Hamas was digging. In both cases, as always, Bennett failed to translate his electoral capital into actual votes when the time came.

Hamas’ impressive capabilities this round, thrusting an entire country into a state of shock, are an embarrassing monument to the policy of Netanyahu and his governments over the past 12 years. In operation after operation, the suppressor of terror, Mr. Security, turns out to be a paper tiger. Wittingly, and over time, he has chosen to strengthen Hamas as opposed to the Palestinian Authority. His boasts have gradually withered, going from “toppling Hamas rule” in 2009 to “restoring deterrence” now.

His propagandists say there is nothing to be done regarding Gaza, and the boss is entirely absorbed in the Iranian front. This is bunk that no cadet on the first day of officer’s training school would buy. The facts are simple: Hamas is good for Netanyahu, and Netanyahu is fabulous for Hamas. He never intended to “topple” its rule. He keeps strengthening this organization, intentionally, to weaken Israel’s interlocutors in the PA.

Hamas-Gaza is a perfect exemplar of the basic concept Ehud Barak coined in his day, and which has kept the left in the political margins for the past 20 years: There is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side. This is exactly what Netanyahu wants. Hamas and Netanyahu are a long, stable, profitable romance.

The talking points for the few Likud lawmakers who are allowed to appear on television are exhaustingly predictable (a bit like the language of the military commentators). But here and there a few originals flicker, like our old acquaintance Miki Zohar, who in the Knesset this week blamed the quite possibly forthcoming “leftist government” for what’s happening. Then there’s the crown prince of the Netanyahu dynasty, the internet troll in chief, who blamed the media(!) for bringing upon us Israel’s (welcome) disengagement from Gaza in 2005.

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh in Hamas. Leaders are assassinated and new ones pop up. High-rise buildings are bombed and brought down, and new ones are built in their place. And the money floweth into Gaza under the auspices of the government in Jerusalem. They’ve been developing their own weapons for a while now, and they keep improving. But the left and the media are eternally to blame.

The leaders of the pro-change bloc are also saying that after Hamas’ chutzpah and the ultimatum it made Monday before it fired rockets at Jerusalem, it wasn’t really possible to prevent the confrontation.

Still, there’s a difference between a disproportionate response, which this terror group fully deserves, and a declared military operation – with a name, goals and a minimum number of days. The legitimacy for this slide is in doubt when it happens on the watch of this prime minister during a caretaker government.

Members of the Border Police during clashes at Damascus Gate last week.Credit: Emil Salman

The breaker of walls

Netanyahu has awarded Hamas a victory. He saw it coming in the  foolish raising of the temperature surrounding the six families scheduled for eviction in Sheikh Jarrah and at the Temple Mount. He most certainly knows that an operation that erupts around Jerusalem will only reinforce a victory of consciousness for Hamas.

Even the name, Operation Guardian of the Walls, for a war in southern Israel, is a gift to the enemy. It’s tightening the Gordian knot that Hamas wants between itself and Al-Quds, Jerusalem. Netanyahu isn’t the guardian of the walls, he’s the breaker of walls – those that had been between Hamas-Gaza and some of the Arab citizens of Israel.

This exasperating terror group has never before been so insolent and bold. Nor have there ever been such scenes in Israel’s Arab community. Thousands of delinquent, hotheaded young men, in dozens of towns and cities, are rampaging in Lod, Acre, Jerusalem and the Galilee, fearless and incensed with deathly hatred.

This is the outcome of many years of neglect and incitement. Netanyahu is the prime minister of the Jews. He doesn’t care about the de facto autonomy that he has neglected, unless its representatives complete the majority of the 61 lawmakers he needs to form a new government.

We’ve experienced a string of debacles, failures and disasters this past year. Phenomena of evasion, fudging and fleeing responsibility are the routine of our days. Scandalous appointments in every major area are our daily bread. The state’s absence in the streets of our mixed cities and Arab areas in the Negev and the Galilee has enabled a cohort of lawbreakers to strike terror into hearts. Usually it was into the hearts of their own community, but now also into those of their Jewish neighbors.

With his debacles, Netanyahu has strengthened toxic autonomies, as we have seen during the coronavirus year (the ultra-Orthodox autonomy) and in the current disturbances (the Arab autonomy). And by his deeds, he has intentionally strengthened Hamas, which is now, from afar, taking custody of Israeli citizens.

Without giving ourselves over to conspiracies, a practice that many in the anyone-but-Bibi camp are addicted to, it’s hard not to think that the big boss also had political calculations when he sat in the command bunker at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv when the operation heated up Monday. These things are never absent from his mind, not even when he’s sleeping or befuddled by anesthesia in a medical procedure – and certainly not when he’s a step away from an ouster after 12 straight years and during a corruption trial with a good chance of being convicted.

This time Israel was dragged in by Hamas. The operation was prepared in advance by the Israel Defense Forces precisely for an extreme scenario like this one. But people who know the defense establishment well are convinced that both IDF chief Aviv Kochavi and his immediate predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, would have gone with the doctrine of “the war between the wars” and wouldn’t have sought a full-fledged operation.

And even if Hamas is chiefly to blame – and it is exactly that – this doesn’t contradict the assumption that Netanyahu was convinced, certain, that the operation is flattening a building that hasn’t yet been erected: a “government of change.” But the rejoicing – or the grief (depending on your point of view) – over the construction project's stalling is premature. Yes, the circumstances are tougher, but all the reasons for ousting the Netanyahu government are valid sevenfold. It’s not going to be a picnic and the likelihood has diminished, but it’s definitely possible.

Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and their colleagues in the pro-change bloc should imagine what would have happened in the opposite situation. Netanyahu would have revved up the coalition talks to 190 miles hour on the grounds that there’s an existential need to replace this bad government. He would have sought photo-ops next to soldiers and officers. He would have spurred his partners to hurry up and sign, informed the president that he succeeded and hastened to swear in a new cabinet.

Israeli artillery troops firing into Gaza on Tuesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Gantz loves Bibi again?

About a month and a half ago, less than a week after Israel’s fourth election in two years, Lapid and Gantz met for the first time after a bitter rift of about a year. They met at a hotel and launched a complex session of defusing anger and complaints.

Lapid said to Gantz more or less: “There’s one thing you have to take into account. If Netanyahu feels that his rule is slipping between his fingers, he’ll try to create a security episode, in Gaza or on the northern border. If he thinks that’s the only way to save himself, he won’t hesitate for a moment.”

This thesis, which I and others have already offered, has always been diluted with the mantra that in security matters, Netanyahu is level-headed and not eager for a fight, even when his political base is urging him to take up arms. Even members of the pro-change bloc don’t suspect Netanyahu of having done a dastardly deed at the expense of Israel’s security.

Among defense officials, the feeling is that the eruption was inevitable. There is evidence that Netanyahu, at a number of potentially explosive junctures – the Temple Mount, the flag march and Damascus Gate – took calming actions. Hamas left him no escape on Jerusalem Day when it gave him an ultimatum that no government would accede to, and then launched rockets at the Jerusalem area.

Still, the timing gives rise to questions; the biggest one takes us back two weeks. Kochavi sought a preemptive strike on Gaza, but Netanyahu still had the mandate to form the next government, so he seemed less enthusiastic. The plans now being implemented in Gaza were pulled from the drawer, amazingly or not, precisely for the start of Lapid’s days with the mandate.

Back to Gantz. His colleagues in the change bloc, or at least most of them, are wondering whether once again he’s falling into Netanyahu’s net. The relationship between them is intense, just as it was only seven years ago, between chief of staff and prime minister. They’re meeting for many discussions and talking innumerable times on the phone. Truly brothers in arms.

He’s so transparent, Netanyahu. When he spots a crack for bringing Gantz back to him, he doesn’t spare the complimentary gestures. At the beginning of the week his office released a photo from the meeting at the Southern Command. The carefully chosen picture was of the defense minister whispering into the ear of the prime minister, who’s listening with a serious mien.

“Gentlemen, harmony is back again,” a source in one of the anti-Netanyahu parties told me wryly. “Gantz mustn’t get confused. Even now, for Bibi the supreme guideline is to prevent Lapid and Bennett from getting a government. The whole time the trial is going on at the Jerusalem District Court, and that’s what really interests him. The moment Gantz signals that he’s considering leaving the bloc, Netanyahu will swoop down on him like a warplane over a high-rise in Gaza City, leaving him as a pile of rubble.”

Before Bennett announced that he was bailing, I asked one of  Gantz’s people whether his boss was still part of the attempt to form a pro-change government. “Absolutely yes,” I was told. I didn’t have a chance to ask him again after Bennett’s announcement.

Miriam Peretz shaking hands with Benjamin Netanyahu upon her winning of the Israel Prize, 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Madame President to nowhere

On June 2, in less than three weeks, Isaac Herzog could well be elected the 11th president of the State of Israel, as easily as a kid on a waterslide. All the kid has to do is to climb up the ladder and rest his or her bottom on the edge of the wet, slippery plastic. Gravity will do the rest.

Well, Herzog has been standing on the ladder's top rung for many months now. Some people are saying that this campaign began back in June 2017, the day after Herzog lost the primary for the Labor Party leadership.

The list of candidates will close at midnight Wednesday. At the moment, Herzog is the only player on the field. Meandering along its edges are Shimon Shetreet, Michael Bar-Zohar and Yehudah Glick. All of them, incidentally, are former Knesset members. Herzog is the only one who now holds an official position, chairman of the Jewish Agency.

The intriguing candidate Miriam Peretz was supposed to declare her entry into the race at the beginning of the week. The security escalation spoiled it for her. She’s busy gathering MKs’ signatures, not personally, but via emissaries. The best-known among them is National Lottery Chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki, a coalition chairman under Ehud Olmert.

A surprise candidate could show up in the next few days, but there are no indications of that. Herzog offers something else if he’s elected – his chair that will be vacated. The prestigious and pampering position at the Jewish Agency was conquered back in the day in a display of supreme political cunning by Herzog, right under Netanyahu’s nose. Likud wants this asset back.

Back to Miriam Peretz. She won’t have trouble enlisting the signatures she needs to present her candidacy but apparently it won’t go any further. In the Knesset, where the 120 lawmakers will elect the president by secret ballot, she’s perceived as a gimmick, with the presidency 10 sizes too big for her. (Another Peretz, Amir, read the map, decided to spare himself a humiliating defeat and dropped out.)

An interesting question is whether Netanyahu and Likud will take her under their wing and announce their support for her candidacy. For Netanyahu, about whom his trial has revealed more disgusting acts such as a demand to decrease coverage of bereaved families, this could be excellent whatever the outcome. He’ll force upon Peretz identification with him, and what difference does it make if she wins or not?

Apparently, she won’t. In contrast to Herzog, who has been conducting his election campaign discreetly and is relying on his excellent relationships with many MKs, some of them nurtured for years, Peretz will need broad public support for the effort to seep into the Knesset hall.

Now the security situation isn’t going to make that possible. She missed the train, never mind that most of its cars have already been occupied by Herzog and his emissaries.

About two weeks ago, R., a former MK and cabinet member, spoke on the phone with a very well-known person who identified himself as a Herzog supporter.

“I’d be happy if you voted for him,” the caller said. “I haven’t been in the Knesset for eight years now,” R. replied. “Ah,” the caller said, “That’s a pity. You weren’t bad at all.”

From this, R. concludes that one of two things must be true. Either Herzog’s campaign is working with obsolete MK lists, or the campaign is simply very thorough. No stone is being left unturned, even if it long ago turned into a fossil.

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