Analysis |

Bennett, the Loneliest Person in the Knesset

This week illustrated that there is a bigger danger to Israel than terrorism or Iranian nukes

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Naftali Bennett at the Knesset, earlier this month.
Naftali Bennett at the Knesset, earlier this month. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In the first week out of seven in the Knesset’s summer session, lawmakers scurried from vote to vote. Every debate on a bill, no matter how minor and obscure, became a gargantuan struggle between the coalition and opposition.

Every other member of the coalition started to lay down conditions for continuing to vote along with the rest of it. Meanwhile, Likud lawmaker’s remark that the opposition should not feel guilty about infringing on the rights of soldiers, abused women and rape victims reflected not only questionable morality, but also how political reality is understood in Netanyahu’s circle: war, by any means possible, until the government is toppled.

Miri Regev last month.Credit: Emil Salman

Bennett, who was summoned to take part in the numerous votes, apparently spent more time in his office in the Knesset building than he would have liked this week. To outside observers, he looked like the loneliest person in the Knesset. His besieged bureau is emptying out after the latest wave of purges, his Knesset caucus is dwindling, and hovering over it all is a cloud of despondency. There are certain similarities to the atmosphere that prevailed around Prime Minister Ehud Barak when he returned from the failed Camp David summit in the summer of 2000.

The coalition is living on borrowed time. The axle and wheels are beginning to fall off the wagon while it’s moving, even if it’s not clear when the final crash will occur. The good intentions that underlay the government’s establishment are not enough to keep it alive.

The main difference between the final days of Barak’s term in office and the present state of affairs has to do with the effectiveness of the adversary. An incalculably more sophisticated campaign is being waged against Bennett. The incitement recalls the period that led up to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, but the methods have seen a quantum leap. The secret is in social media, of course. At Netanyahu’s disposal is an endless army of bots and trolls, some of them operated by true devotees, and some apparently the result of large-scale funding.

While the military is holding war exercises, the chief of staff is talking about the “industrialization of precision” – streamlining the offensive machine in order to achieve maximum results. That’s what the Netanyahu machine is doing in the political realm.

Benjamin NetanyahuCredit: Emil Salman

Lawmaker Nir Orbach, who has been marked as the weak link in Yamina, has been subjected to a kind of Chinese water torture for months. A permanent tent camp of protesters has been set up outside his home and is staffed in scheduled shifts. His family is attacked with curses and accusations whenever they leave the house. Someone is funding this operation. It won’t be a big surprise if it turns out that the money is coming from one of the regional councils in the West Bank; that is, from the taxpayers, including supporters of the government.

Lawmaker Michal Shir Segman of New Hope vividly described the situation in a Knesset speech this week: it’s Netanyahu’s military arm, a propaganda enterprise that spreads poison with appalling effectiveness. Bibi supposedly heard nothing and knew nothing. The retiree from Ashkelon who allegedly sent threatening letters containing bullets to Bennett and his family is only a symptom. The prime minister does not face danger from her or her kind, because the security around him is tight. But one day, the violence will be aimed at a coalition backbencher or a journalist. The threat will be understood to all the rest, and Netanyahu will, as usual, plead innocence.

In many ways, this situation is worse than the threat of terrorism, or even the Iranian nuclear project in its present state. This is actually the real threat that is now hovering over Israel: a lethal mixture of fake news and incitement, which is undermining the foundations of democracy. In the wing waits the leader of the opposition, who aspires to return to the premiership and to install a new system of government, along the lines of what his Hungarian friend Viktor Orban has done successfully.

The echo chambers created by social media have been especially active since the onset of the latest wave of terrorism, with each attack being depicted as a horrific precedent the likes of which have never been seen. One of the problems is that the immediate victims of the exaggerations and fabricated news are young people who lack the necessary perspective.

Each fragment of a report is inflated into accusations about terrible concessions to the Palestinians and the government’s defeatism. That is apparently the explanation for the rising popularity of Religious Zionism lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir – the most extreme figure of the religious extremists – among young people.

Itamar Ben-Gvir before the March 2020 electionCredit: Emil Salman

Some of the moves against the coalition are impressive in their creativity. Last summer, not long after taking office, Bennett spoke at the conclusion of an officers’ course at a military base. It was a very hot day in the Negev, and a few female cadets fainted. Bennett broke off his remarks to allow the young women to be evacuated. Video of the incident was edited to add the sounds of shouts and curses against Bennett, and posted the result on social media. Thus, an event that never happened came into being.

This is compounded by another phenomenon, whose implications must not be ignored. The internal tensions between Arabs and Jews are again gathering momentum in a way that recalling the events of last May. The recent conflicts at universities, in Tel Aviv and especially Be’er Sheva, over demonstrations in which Palestinian flags were hoisted, are grease for the wheels of the right wing and are again feeding anxieties about the Arabs who live within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

It’s no coincidence that two former ministers from Likud, lawmakers Yisrael Katz and Yoav Gallant, voiced explicit threats against the Arab public in Knesset speeches they delivered this week. The opposition has discerned a new conflagration and wants to exploit it for its purposes.

In Bennett’s circle, the hope is that the rain is falling equally on both sides (a metaphor not especially appropriate for this time of the year in Israel). It’s possible that Netanyahu is also being worn down, between his trial and the demands of his ultra-Orthodox allies. But an outside observer cannot escape the reasonable conclusion that the quite impressive experiment of the Bennett-Lapid government, with its not inconsiderable achievements, is in danger of imminent collapse.

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