More than a month after the new government was sworn in, the sparring matches between the coalition and the opposition seem to be of greater interest to the lawmakers involved than to the public. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s departure from the official Balfour Street residence in Jerusalem has greatly reduced the daily drama. What he now has left are mainly mutual recriminations with his successor, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Netanyahu sparks these exchanges, almost on a daily basis, lacking any other source of drama. But meanwhile, he’s barely been getting a rise out of the Likud backbenchers.
According to the opposition chairman’s new line, his successor has managed to destroy in one month everything Netanyahu himself built by the sweat of his brow for 12 years. On Tuesday, Netanyahu took Bennett to task for the warming ties with Jordan and added the baseless accusation that Bennett has given a gift of more water to the Jordanians, while King Abdullah “gives oil to Iran.” In fact, Jordan is paying for the additional allotment of water. This is the same allotment that Netanyahu, as was reported in Haaretz in March, took away out of petty anger over the royal household’s grounding the flight he had planned to the United Arab Emirates on the eve of the last election. As for the oil, Iran doesn’t need oil from Jordan. In fact, this is about the laying of a pipeline that would export oil from Iran via Iraq and Jordan, which has been under discussion for many years.
On Wednesday, Likud published a “list of failures of the Bennett-Lapid government.” This includes the return of the coronavirus (which has occurred in many Western countries due to the spread of the delta variant), as well as the amazing claim about the “postponement of the passing of the budget,” after Netanyahu as prime minister torpedoed the passage of the budget for a year and thus broke up the partnership with Defense Minister Benny Gantz. But the harshest claim of all was published on Wednesday in Netanyahu’s mouthpiece Israel Hayom. In an article under the paper’s main headline, Netanyahu claimed that “the Iranian arena has been abandoned. The Iranians are galloping toward the bomb and the government is silent.”
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Bennett responded fairly harshly, but not in detail. “As prime minister, you are exposed to information that you didn’t know of before,” he told a press conference that afternoon. “What I said is true with regard to Iran. There is a gap between the high rhetoric and the neglect that occurred.” Bennett’s attack, still only implied, referred to the chaos that the outgoing government left behind in the management of the country. In particular, he was hinting at a number of important strategic realms, first and foremost ties with the United States in the context of the Iranian nuclear threat. These issues could also be seen in Netanyahu frenetic and continually flawed conduct at the height of the coronavirus crisis, on the eve of the arrival in Israel of the vaccines in December of last year (the actual bringing in of the vaccines he handled well).
In his last years of his premiership, Netanyahu made a change in the system of government. The government became centrally managed, without answering to the public and methodically concealing information from his coalition partners, the defense minister and then-Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. Groundwork was almost completely neglected and Netanyahu handled the various events by himself, from the coronavirus to the agreements with the United Arab Emirates. Not only politicians were excluded; so were the professionals in the army, who were not informed when Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia or with a wink approved the American sale of F-35 aircraft to the UAE.
But the weightiest issue involves ties with Washington, which were handled solely by Netanyahu and Ambassador Ron Dermer. In Netanyahu’s close ties with the former U.S. president and his crude interference in American politics, Netanyahu managed to create deep alienation from him in the Democratic Party, which came back to haunt him in the early days of President Joe Biden’s term. Recently, he added insult to injury when he forbade senior security officials from presenting objections to the Americans’ return to the nuclear agreement, claiming that discussion of the details of the accord would be the same as coming to terms with it.
Netanyahu has enormous diplomatic and security experience. Frequently during his long time in office, he navigated cautiously and responsibly. Ministers and rivals, sometimes including Bennett himself, often praised his judgment and coolness in crises. But in his last years in office, Netanyahu also created a Byzantine court around him, silencing criticism and demeaning professionals when they did not toe the line. Outwardly, his spokesmen and mouthpieces glorified his achievements. All of Israel’s strength, we were told, rested on the infinite wisdom of the leader who simply could never be wrong.
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Bennett entered the office and found a different reality entirely, with quite a bit of mold and spider webs in the corners. Some of Netanyahu’s moves, particularly his rift with the Biden administration (which both sides took care to cover up), hurt Israel’s standing and even the power it projected to countries in the region.
The new prime minister indeed brings a more practical atmosphere to his conduct toward the army and the government ministries. But it must be said that so far he has only encountered the remnants of obstacles that Netanyahu has placed in his way – the illegal outpost of Evyatar, the Flag Parade – not real crises. These will certainly come. Bennett will have to navigate them from within the government of extremes that he heads. Paradoxically, the main glue that holds its members together is the fear of a return of Netanyahu to its leadership.