Analysis

Why Naftali Bennett Couldn’t Bring Down Netanyahu

Bennett wanted to resign, but he couldn't take the pressure against bringing down a right-wing government and repeating the 1992 trauma that brought the 'Oslo disaster'

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett gestures as he delivers a statement to members of the media, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem November 19, 2018.
REUTERS/Amir Cohen

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The first half of Naftali Bennett’s statement on Monday morning read exactly like a resignation speech. Because that was what it had been meant to be. He gave all the reasons from his perspective why he and his colleagues from Habayit Hayehudi could no longer sit in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government - “Israel is in a security confidence crisis” he said, and the source of the crisis is not its external enemies, but that “during the last decade in Netanyahu's governments - Israel stopped winning.”

Bennett wanted to resign, as he made clear in the first half of his prepared speech. He then went on, in the second half, to give all the reasons why he was staying in the government after all. You could see it on his face and hear it in the tone of his voice. In Netanyahu’s long political career, there has been no other politician he humiliated more than Bennett. Sometimes it was major – like his unsuccessful attempts to keep Bennett out of his cabinet and to entice Habayit Hayehudi voters to jump ship in the 2015 election. Other times it was petty – such as his insistence on always putting Bennett last in meetings with coalition leaders and refusing to include him on prime ministerial flights abroad (sometimes even forcing him to take a separate flight).

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The source of Netanyahu’s animosity towards Bennett is less important (starts with an S, four letters). The deeper implication for Israeli politics is that one of its rising stars, who should have naturally joined Likud, instead took over Habayit Hayehudi and turned it into a true right-wing competitor, forever forcing Likud to up the ultra-nationalist stakes.

Bennett has little patience with the demands of running a religious party. He doesn’t believe politicians should take directions from rabbis. He knows that as Habayit Hayehudi leader he can never become prime minister. But the path back to Likud is blocked as long as Netanyahu is there.

But on Monday morning, he backed down. He can’t be the one to topple Netanyahu. Avigdor Lieberman, like Bennett – both former chiefs of staff to Netanyahu – tried to do just that; but Lieberman, leader of a shrinking “Russian” party, had less to lose and no one to give any accounting to. As leader of Habayit Hayehudi, Bennett has much more baggage.

The religious-right still carries around the trauma of 1992 - when extreme splinter parties brought down Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud government for the sin of going to the Madrid Conference (which was a futile event anyway). Those parties then failed to cross the electoral threshold, clearing the way to Yitzhak Rabin’s government and the Oslo Process – even though the right-wing and religious parties got more votes than the center-left bloc.

Bennett is of the generation of right-wing Israelis who still remember that trauma and believe in the narrative of how right-wing extremism and infighting toppled what was the most right-wing government in Israeli history and ushered in “the Oslo disaster.” But he is too young to feel responsible for it. Many of the influential figures who form Habayit Hayehudi's ideological backbone, rabbis and settler leaders, were already politically active then and see it as their historical duty to prevent a similar chain of events. That’s why the religious-right has largely remained silent over the corruption allegations against Netanyahu and that’s why Bennett was under tremendous pressure until Monday morning, swamped by hundreds of telephone calls and text-messages, not to resign.

In his statement, he chose to mention only one such conversation he had - with Nobel Prize-winner Professor Yisrael Aumann, who in a friendly manner explained why he thought that “for the good of the state” Bennett should remain in the government. But there were many less pleasant conversations.

It wasn’t only twenty-six-year-old traumas that made Bennett change his mind. Netanyahu’s statement the previous evening at the Defense Ministry, where he warned of an “irresponsible” early election at such a “complex security period,” citing classified intelligence he can’t share with the public, sounded risible to most seasoned listeners. Bennett himself mocked it in his statement, when he mentioned all the times Netanyahu himself tried to call early elections during periods no less fraught in terms of security. But while Netanyahu’s fear-mongering may be transparent to many, Bennett knows full well that for many right-wing voters, it is devastatingly efficient.

The twin fears - of being portrayed by Netanyahu’s media machine as the man who brought down the right-wing government and the one who jeopardized Israel’s security - was too much for Bennett. In his statement, he gave an account of his own Special Forces service (just like Netanyahu did the night earlier), but all his experience behind enemy lines isn’t enough to fortify him against being on the receiving end of the Bibi slime-gun.