Analysis |

Bennett Had to Choose Between Being a Loser or Being Nasty. It Wasn’t a Hard Choice

Bennett always took pride in his management skills; in this case, the Israeli premier hasn’t managed to take charge of the chaos, and the failure is entirely his

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delivers a speech in the Knesset plenum, on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delivers a speech in the Knesset plenum, on Wednesday. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett found himself stuck with an ultimatum: to be a total loser or to be the bad guy. The choice wasn’t too difficult. The head of Yamina lawmaker Yomtob Kalfon rolled easily, albeit belatedly. He was in the Knesset thanks to the so-called “Norwegian Law” which allows cabinet members to resign from the Knesset, giving their place to the next candidate on their party’s list. The objective, as set by the prime minister’s office, was to reach the Knesset’s summer recess safely, in another ten weeks. Anything perceived as a threat or a risk would be dealt with, to the extent possible.

After the departure of MK Idit Silman and the loss of his Knesset majority, Bennett understood that he had to neutralize other ticking bombs before it was too late. Kalfon was a suspect ever since his secret meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this year. According to the version of events provided to the media at the time, he was a double agent and Bennett's office was informed in advance. This was false. After that, he was under surveillance. Indeed, he was absent during Knesset votes for “reasons of conscience” on several occasions, to the irritation of his colleagues.

When asked to explain, he provided the excuse of his surroundings: the community of religious immigrants from France and their rabbis, who are known to mostly be very right-wing Likud supporters. This is the community he comes from, and to which he returns on weekends. The Prime Minister’s Office realized that no good would come of this and that he would break under pressure at some point. It was better to nip it in the bud.

The process of removing him, through the resignation of Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana and his return to the Knesset, was concocted last month, under the shadow of Silman’s departure. This affair highlights the fact that Yamina is not really a party – it’s barely a faction – and that Bennett has no one to rely on other than his old army buddy. On the other hand, Bennett has learned the lessons from two previous accidents: Silman and renegade lawmaker Amichai Chikli, who left Yamina. Bennett acted firmly and with resolve, leaving opposition spokesmen bemoaning the act of villainy committed against "the loyal and ideological Knesset member” Kalfon, the one they had until then been denigrating, harassing and humiliating.

The religious services portfolio returns to the prime minister. Kahana will become the deputy minister. The question is what will happen in three months, the maximal period a “temporary” minister can hold a portfolio. When Bennett’s term expires, Kahana’s term will automatically expire as well, unless they find another solution.

The political arena is dynamic, if not packed with dynamite. At any given moment, anything could explode. Bennett barely had time to rest on his laurels after successfully ending the crisis with the United Arab List before his political adviser Shimrit Meir quit on Friday morning. This is not a drawn-out resignation – she’ll be gone in two weeks.

The Prime Minister’s Office is a pressure cooker of cliques and power struggles over proximity to the chief. In the 11 months of this government, there was no doubt as to whom prevailed. Meir was not “just” a political adviser. Last October, Bennett convened his staff and told them that after the departure of his strategic adviser Moshe Klughaft, Meir would be replacing him.

As she grew more powerful, her relations with two key figures in the office worsened. They are Tal Gan-Zvi, the head of staff, and cabinet secretary Shalom Shlomo. The more authority Meir gained, the more rivals and adversaries cropped up – and not just in the Prime Minister’s Office, but in other ministers' bureaus as well.

Meir saw herself as Bennett’s gatekeeper against right-wing pressure that came not only from his faction – from Ayelet Shaked, Nir Orbach and Silman before she left – but from within his office as well, namely from Gan-Zvi. In her mind, she was the one navigating him towards statesmanlike conduct, unity and national responsibility, something which bore political fruit. The others wanted to drag him back to his older party, Habayit Hayehudi.

The battles in his bureau got worse, and Bennett found himself increasingly engaged in efforts to soothe and mediate. She came to Bennett with complaints about them, and they came with complaints about her. She sensed that they had marked her and were leaking damaging information about her, even backing a complaint lodged with the Civil Service Commission by the Movement for Quality Government, following a report in Haaretz that she had participated in a meeting with Bennett that dealt with political matters against regulations. She decided she’d had enough. In any case, she was recently overheard telling others in the office (that is, those with whom she is still on speaking terms) that the “event,” that is, leading the government, is over.

Bennett always took pride in his management skills. This column has said in the past that he was not a leader, but a manager. In this case, the failure is entirely his. He hasn’t managed to take charge of the chaos, but that’s the way of the world. Advisers come and go, with bitter rivalries ending in thunderous departures. These occurred in the offices of previous prime ministers as well. They don’t cut short the lives of governments.

The record is held, obviously, by Netanyahu. The number of chiefs of staff, managers, advisers, spokespeople and assistants that left him over 15 years in office is enormous. Some fled for their lives from his ill-tempered spouse, others for a variety of other reasons. This didn’t prevent him from winning again and again, sweeping up Knesset seats and holding onto power.

When there is public support, you’re in the saddle even in the absence of a functioning bureau. When the nation isn't on your side and your Knesset faction is teetering, even the best of advisers won’t help.



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