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Can Bennett, a Right-wing Provocateur, Save Israel's Democracy?

Guy Ziv
Guy Ziv
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Prime Minister designate, Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina party, at the Knesset earlier this month
Prime Minister designate, Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina party, at the Knesset earlier this monthCredit: POOL/ REUTERS
Guy Ziv
Guy Ziv

Much of the world’s attention regarding Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has focused on his right-wing ideology. However, fears that the leader of the ultra-nationalist Yamina party and former head of the Yesha Council of Settlements is about to pursue annexation of the West Bank are unwarranted. Bennett lacks the mandate to implement even a partial annexation ("Area C" of the West Bank) given his narrow, ideologically disparate coalition.

The more salient question is whether a Bennett premiership will be able to curb the Netanyahu era's right-wing populist rhetoric and stem Israel’s illiberal slide, and lead a return to democratic norms. The record of several key actors in the new coalition, including Bennett’s own history of populist politics, raises serious concerns about whether the self-described "government of change" will do so.

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Israeli democracy took a hit in recent years not only because of Netanyahu’s increasingly authoritarian leadership, but also due to the incessant attacks by the political right on democratic institutions, civil society actors, and minority groups; the profusion of nativist legislation with racial overtones like the Jewish Nation-State Law; and the divisive, inflammatory rhetoric against leftists as well as key state institutions including the army.

Bennett’s no. 2 in his Yamina party, former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, has long sought to limit the power of the courts. She and Bennett have previously pushed for legislation that would enable the Knesset to overrule the Supreme Court. Now that Shaked will be serving on the Judicial Appointments Committee, she can be expected to redouble her efforts against judicial activism and try to carry out her "legal revolution."

Prime Minister-designate Naftali Bennett's Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked and Finance Minister, Avigdor LiebermanCredit: Ofer Vaknin

The new finance minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has a history of incendiary populist rhetoric, having previously run on a platform of "loyalty" to the state and called Arab-Israeli politicians a "fifth column." 

After Israeli soldier Elor Azaria was arrested in March 2016 by military police for having shot an unarmed Palestinian assailant, Lieberman sided with Azaria against his commanders and military prosecutors, helping him become a cause célèbre among right-wing Israelis

Lieberman, who replaced defense minister Moshe Yaalon following the latter’s condemnation of the soldier for violating the army’s code of ethics, called on the president to pardon Azaria.

Bennett, who served as education minister at the time, joined the populist chorus by quoting a line from a song, "How good it is that you've come home" and posting a photograph on Twitter of a jubilant Azaria family celebrating his parole.

What has made Bennett’s frequent clashes with the security establishment particularly disturbing is that they have typically come across as cynical political games rather than genuine policy differences based on thoughtful deliberation.

His bill to allow Israel to expel families of Palestinian terrorists from their homes was opposed by Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman, who said that such legislation, far from serving as a deterrence, would only exacerbate tensions with the Palestinians and damage the Shin Bet’s ability to gather information – a position supported by then-IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.

As minister of defense in 2019, Bennett ordered the army to withhold all Palestinian terrorists’ bodies "as part of a broader policy of deterrence," disregarding the concerns raised by the security establishment that such a move would not advance Israeli interests. Bennett then cut 149 million shekels from the tax funds that Israel transfers to the Palestinian Authority – the sum that the PA paid to terrorist families the previous year – despite Argaman’s warnings that this was an unnecessary provocation

Bennett subsequently banned left-wing activists from the West Bank, an unprecedented move that Haaretz’s senior defense correspondent Amos Harel called a cynical use of the army for his political games. The Shin Bet, moreover, regarded Bennett as soft on Jewish terrorists, fuming over his decision to rescind its detention of a far-right Jewish activist it regarded as a terrorist who posed a high level of danger.

Bennett sparred with Eisenkot as well, asking the IDF chief in the summer of 2018 why the army does not shoot directly at those who launch incendiary balloons and kites from Gaza into Israel. Eisenkot replied that it was "against my operational and moral position." Four months later, Bennett criticized the IDF for imposing legal constraints on soldiers from carrying out their fighting duties, receiving a rare public rebuke from Eisenkot, who implored him to "leave the IDF out of any political argument."

Israeli right-wingers hold signs accusing Yamina's Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of 'supporting terror' and joining the 'traitorous left' by forming a new government without Netanyahu and LikudCredit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

Underscoring Bennett’s populist instincts has been the public nature and belligerent manner in which he chose to express his disagreements with the security establishment.

When former senior security officials pleaded to Netanyahu to cancel his address to a joint session of Congress aimed at thwarting President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, saying it would harm U.S.-Israel relations, Bennett took to Facebook, where he listed the security establishment’s past "mistaken" recommendations, asking "Why should we listen to you this time?"

Despite the right-wing populist political games of Bennett and some of his colleagues, there is a silver lining. Bennett acknowledged recently that he was wrong when he once referred to United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas, his new coalition partner, as "a supporter of terrorism," calling him now a "brave leader" and "a decent man." He has moderate coalition partners who will keep him in check.

It is even possible that, as prime minister, he will arrive at the same conclusion reached by one of his predecessors in this office, Ariel Sharon, who noted that "what you see from here you don’t see from there."

Guy Ziv is Associate Professor of International Relations at American University’s School of International Service. Twitter: @ZivGuy

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