Analysis |

Bennett Admits He Failed but Will Do His All to Help Save Israel

Still, he says he's passing on a better country to the caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid, who now faces a Netanyahu preparing his latest effort to gut the judicial system

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Amos Biderman
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

I’ve failed, admits Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in conversations in recent days. I didn’t manage, I didn’t succeed, in protecting my friends from opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s poison machine. No Knesset member from any other party would have managed to withstand the beating they took. I am not angry at them. I have no grudges against anyone, not Idit (Silman), and not Nir (Orbach). The responsibility is mine, the failure is mine. When I took up my position, I plunged deep into the work: Iran – which had been neglected, the coronavirus. I forgot them, my friends and colleagues. My Knesset members hadn’t prepared themselves for a government of this kind.

He also admits to another failure, from the same family: The opposition managed to etch into the public mind that the government relies on “terror supporters.” The tax monies are flowing to the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore Israelis are getting killed; and therefore everything is getting more expensive. The legitimacy was eroded. Had we been four (Yamina MKs) Bennetts and Matan Kahanas, and four (United Arab List chairman MK) Mansour Abbases, everything would have looked different. Not everyone withstands pressure.

The experiment did succeed, says Bennett. And the patient dies, adds his interlocutor. Okay, says Bennett. I was expecting to hear that.

A few days before he will leave the prime minister’s premises for an unknown future, he doesn’t even know in which office he will be sitting. Maybe he will settle into the foreign minister’s office, since Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will become the caretaker prime minister. Or he will sit at home in Ra’anana. He will apparently be leaving the political playing field, for what politicians like to call a “time out.” I intend to try to return, he says. That’s clear. I think I was a good prime minister, in difficult circumstances. My government worked well. In his first term in office, Yitzhak Rabin was a failed prime minister because of flawed political behavior. So was Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. When they came back, they had learned lessons.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting this week.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

The future worries him a lot more than his own fate, he says. Not only as a citizen who sees what is happening but also from the point of view of a prime minister, he is convinced that Israel is now at a fateful crossroads, the most dangerous in the history of the state since its establishment. Falling apart is a possibility, he says. I didn’t think Jews would once again burn their brothers’ barns, until the incident of the Judea and Samaria regulations came along. This is barn-burning.

On Friday he conducted a round of consultations with legal and security figures. Tell me what is going to happen on July 1 if those regulations don’t pass, he asked. They drew a picture of a catastrophe: 3,700 security prisoners are being held in prisons in Israel, under the regulations. Ostensibly, they would be entitled to go free immediately. Let’s suppose it’s possible to delay their release for a few weeks, through all kinds of legal tricks. But the enforcement in the West Bank territories would cease immediately. The police would lose their authority. Israel Defense Forces soldiers would need to replace them, to arrest thieves, to enforce the traffic rules. Normal life in the settlements would be very messed up.

On Sunday he was still trying to appeal to Nir Orbach. At the same time, he kept an eye on what was happening with the refusenik lawmakers Mazen Ghanayim from the United Arab List and Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi from Meretz. No progress was discerned. A number of cabinet ministers received information to the effect that Rinawie Zoabi was intending to vote in favor of dissolving the Knesset. The fire of revenge was burning fiercely within her.

The next morning Bennett had another, very vociferous conversation with Orbach, filled with accusations and emotions. Since we agree that it is over, Orbach said to him, let’s finish it with a break to the right. That was inconceivable to Bennett. So I will vote in favor of the dissolution, concluded Orbach. The die was cast. Bennett carried on with his schedule, held a briefing with diplomatic correspondents that had been planned in advance, for three hours. After that, he called in Yair Lapid. I’ve decided, he said to him. I intend to pass the premiership over to you, in the smoothest and most decent way.

Yamina legislator Nir Orbach this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Lapid was surprised, moved. You are a true friend, he said. Bennett saw how Lapid’s face clouded over, with the recognition that in a few days everything would be on him. I intend to be a help to him on every issue, in every area, at any hour, Bennett promised. Yair has been a wonderful partner. Right from the beginning, when he relinquished the position of prime minister to me, and all along the way. He didn’t go in for maneuvers, he didn’t try for a single moment to act like an alternate prime minister. There was only one prime minister, and I was it. He went to all lengths so I would succeed. I will go to all lengths so he will succeed. I will help him as much as he wants, mainly on the critical matters, the security matters. He deserves it.

A state in good shape

It sounds schmaltzy, kitschy, like a romantic novel. The Bibi-ists scorn it and double over with laughter. Humaneness, decency, integrity. Friendship. There is no room for these in their midst. On Thursday, Gideon Levy wrote mockingly: a government of politeness and good manners. Give them fraudulence, corruption, rapacity, breaking of agreements, trampling of partners, and they are full of admiration.

It pains me that it’s over, admits Bennett. Not because of my personal downgrade, that I won’t be the prime minister anymore. Rather, because we created a different reality. We worked well. In harmony. Despite the political differences. Omer Bar Lev – the public security minister – for example. We worked extraordinarily well together. I have only good things to say about him. They tried to depict him in an unfair way, only because he isn’t a brilliant orator.

I hope we made people realize that something different is possible, he says. This government was good. The problem was in the coalition. If, for example, Yair were the head of a government in which Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich were ministers. Would all the members of Yesh Atid stay? It also happened to Benny Gantz in the last government. Kahol Lavan’s Miki Haimovich, Ram Shefa, Asaf Zamir – they all voted against him and (on the night of the disputes in the Knesset parking lot) the government fell.

In the two days after the dissolution announcement, Bennett held a marathon of meetings with the heads of the Shin Bet and Mossad, and with the chief of staff. Consider the possibility that we are entering into a period of instability, again, with two or three elections in quick succession, without a national budget, without appointments to key positions, he said to them. He, together with them, constructed lines of possible action in this situation.

Israeli army chief Aviv Kochavi in April.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

I am passing on to Lapid a state in much better shape than when I received it a year and a bit ago, he says proudly. On the day I became prime minister, there were 25 fires near the Gazan border. They have ceased completely. Hamas threatened that if within a month we didn’t transfer suitcases full of money to them, they would embark on another round of fighting. We didn’t, and that didn’t happen. Two days after I came in, there was the Flag March. They marched, everything went by peacefully. This last year, in the area near Gaza, was the quietest with respect to rockets in the past 15 years.

As I surmised above, Bennett is now heading towards resignation. But as long as he doesn’t say that out loud, it remains only an assumption. According to him, he is pondering where he would do the most good: on the wheel, at the head of Yamina, joining up with another party, or going home. I will do everything, he promises, to prevent the country from falling apart, the destruction of the Third Temple. With no stuff about ego or official positions. If need be, I will scrub the floor. Anything.

Critical condition

Lapid won’t be a standard prime minister. He’ll be a caretaker prime minister, with all that implies.

On the one hand, it’s nice. He won’t have to deal with maintenance in the Knesset and the coalition, pass (or block) bills, waste nights on filibusters and suffer the invective from the opposition benches that you wouldn’t hear in the worst open-air market.

On the other hand – well, that’s obvious. His term might end after five or six months.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the Knesset on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

He’ll focus on preventing deterioration. The cost of living, especially housing prices, will be used against him in the campaign. This stems partly from the global economic crisis and the war in Ukraine, but also from the government’s powerlessness. Even now, Netanyahu often assails the high prices and young couples’ resulting distress. Lapid will have very little room to slow the economy’s spiral.

Fortunately, the shooting, knifing and ax attacks have stopped (for now). The Gaza Strip is quiet and there are no immediate problems. Terrorist organizations may try to provoke Lapid, on Iran’s instructions. He won’t rush to use force.

“He’s very cautious, judicious, sometimes exaggeratedly so,” said a member of the security cabinet (who isn’t from Lapid's Yesh Atid). “He won’t embark on military adventures.”

The last time a center-leftist was prime minister during an election campaign was in 2009. And Ehud Olmert wasn’t even the one running against the opposition leader (then as now, Netanyahu). It was Tzipi Livni.

Netanyahu likes Lapid as a rival to run against, but less so as the caretaker prime minister. He’ll take two tacks against Lapid, similar to those he used in 2015 against Isaac Herzog and Livni – intimidation and ridicule.

Remember his 2015 hit using Herzog’s nickname – “Who will protect us against Hamas? Tzipi and Bougie? Ha ha.” Lately, he has been mocking the phrase “Prime Minister Lapid.”

But even more, he has been warning of an apocalypse if Lapid holds the reins for too long. The Zionist entity will be wiped out by Hamas’ knives, the Islamic State’s axes and the ayatollahs’ missiles. Lapid will form a government with the Joint List of Arab parties; they’ve already made a secret deal. The fake news will fly, the bots will echo it.

Both candidates are entering the campaign with limited room to reshape their own blocs. As prime minister, Netanyahu left little to chance. He got parties to quit the race through false promises (see Moshe Feiglin), got others to run on joint tickets (see Smotrich and Ben-Gvir), and generally meddled as much as he could in parties not his own. But as prime minister, this was much easier to do.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Now he isn’t prime minister, but his situation is optimal. All the parties in his bloc, from the ultra-Orthodox to the religious racists, are far above the 3.25-percent electoral threshold and will be even if Smotrich and Ben-Gvir split up. They're all but guaranteed to make it into the Knesset.

Still, Netanyahu will seek to minimize the risks; Yamina defector Amichai Chikli, for example. Chikli is so full of himself, thanks to the praise from Bibi and his proxies, that he thinks he can reach the Knesset on his own. Now Netanyahu has to return him to Earth and prevent him from running. He wouldn’t bring in a single new voter, he’d only eat into Likud’s base, and Smotrich’s.

Lapid’s situation is more complicated. He has always had less scope for the kind of maneuvering Netanyahu excels in, because in his bloc – unlike Netanyahu’s – there are no rabbis to send and no relatives to apply pressure or make corrupt promises. Lapid behaved altruistically in the last election so that left-wing Meretz would make it into the Knesset. This time he has no intention of doing so unless catastrophe looms.

The center-left bloc is entering this fifth election in three and a half years in critical condition. The electoral threshold will hover menacingly above. The same is true of its partner on the liberal right, New Hope.

Labor Party chief Merav Michaeli, whose ambitions border on the delusional, doesn’t plan to make Lapid’s life easy. As far as she’s concerned, let Meretz be wiped out and Bibi regain power. She’ll repair the country after she becomes prime minister.

If Meretz, whose voters plan to punish it for the Rinawie Zoabi mistake, doesn’t form a joint ticket with Labor, it’s in a clear and present danger. Gantz of Kahol Lavan and New Hope chief Gideon Sa’ar may also have to consider a joint ticket – and ditto for Bennett’s Yamina if it continues to exist, though he insists it will be fine on its own. Ayelet Shaked’s Yamina is another story.

Gantz is a problem passed on from one prime minister to the next. He made life hard for Bennett, too, despite his peaceable appearance. Gantz is very territorial. Under Bennett, he wanted to make exclusive decisions – for instance, regarding the Palestinian Authority. No other defense minister ever demanded that.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

His grudge against Lapid is well known. In Gantz’s view, every spoonful Lapid puts in his mouth comes straight from Gantz’s liver, a senior coalition member who knows them both well told me.

Gantz’s frustration will only grow during the campaign. This will be a two-way race, Lapid versus Netanyahu, whereas Gantz thinks he’s the only candidate who can form a government after the election and avoid another round. His effort to make it a three-way race will be one of the most interesting challenges of the campaign.

Saying goodbye to Shaked

The partnership between Bennett and Shaked lasted for more than 15 years. They trod together over hardscrabble land and green fields alike.

There was their two-year stint starting in 2006 at Netanyahu’s office, before he became prime minister again. Bennett has called that a course in terror, referring to Sara Netanyahu. Then there were the right-wing organizations and political parties, defeats and victories, cabinet portfolios, blowups and frustrations. The chain never broke until Bennett reached the Prime Minister’s Office.

That role, he has admitted, changed him. You don’t stay the same person, the same impetuous, sometimes childlike politician when the weight of the world is on your shoulders.

Bennett went through a swift process of moving toward the center, as happened to Ariel Sharon, Menachem Begin, Ehud Olmert and to some extent Yitzhak Shamir (who didn’t dream of annexation and held back during the 1991 Gulf War). Shaked has remained rooted in Habayit Hayehudi, the party that she and Bennett took over a decade ago before branching out.

As the days went by, a wall grew between Bennett and Shaked. Suddenly their frequent meetings, a tradition of many years, started getting canceled, or abbreviated. The whispers about how Shimrit Meir, Bennett’s adviser on diplomatic affairs (and everything else), had replaced Shaked as the “strong women” around him weren’t just tabloid gossip.

It wasn’t a tough choice for Bennett: Meir’s moderate stance or Shaked’s rightist, dogmatic and conservative harrowing. The choice became a strategy. The interior minister was left out. Time after time. Sometimes literally.

As Shaked told him about six months ago: You’re not the same person I used to know. If you keep it up you’ll be left alone, without your team, without partners. Well, it turns out she was right.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked in Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

It’s impossible to overstate the humiliation she felt Monday when he phoned her during her political trip to Morocco to tell her about his decision. Only about 10 minutes after that conversation, at 6:41 P.M., the statement went out to the media.

In those remarks, at Lapid’s side after the compliments and declarations of love, the outgoing prime minister thanked “my friends and colleagues in Yamina.” He then parted his pursed lips and continued with his speech. He has been working with Lapid for a year, with Shaked for about 15, but at the farewell he made very clear who his preferred partner is.

If Bennett indeed retires from political life, he’ll prefer to hand Yamina over to the friend and partner who never disappointed him, Matan Kahana. At the end of last week, before the announcement, Yamina people checked to see if that was legally possible; after all, Shaked is the No. 2 in the party.

With Yamina in Kahana’s hands, Bennett won’t have to worry; he’ll know that any time he wants he can return and lead the party.

Nonsense, people quoted Shaked as saying this week. For now, we’re running together. If Naftali resigns and if I want it, the party will pass to me.

Either way, the affair (not the one Sara Netanyahu malevolently attributed to her), hasn’t ended well. Shaked's options are meager. This year she has been burned from both sides. The further she moved from Bennett, the closer she got to Likud in an attempt to create an independent path, her first.

She did this mainly via her position as interior minister. Local council heads from Likud received attention from her. She thought she was using them, but they used her more.

But on the Bibi-ist right she’s considered a traitor, a collaborator without whom Bennett’s government wouldn’t have arisen and certainly wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did. In the center-right camp – Sa’ar and Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman – she’s canceled because of her willingness to be part of a Netanyahu government at any time. Her dreams of returning to Likud, now at least, aren’t worth the pillow they were dreamed on.

The Yamina question is deeper: Is there indeed such an animal? There is affection and admiration for Bennett, both because of the dignified way he ended things and his success as prime minister in a number of areas. Then there’s the backdrop of incitement and slander rained down on him by the Bibi-ists and Smotriches.

But his caucus, or more precisely its singed remains, is an eclectic collection from Shirly Pinto to Abir Kara. The party’s current base, opinion polls say, consists of enough rightist voters for one and a half Knesset seats, way below the electoral threshold. All the rest are bits and pieces from supporters of Gantz, Sa’ar, Lapid and Lieberman.

Yamina has always been an unclear Lego model. Its heads have changed, and so have its members. Amorphousness isn’t a good characteristic for young parties, most of which are destined to disappear.

A horse’s head, courtesy of Likud

On Wednesday, amid the hysteria that seized the Knesset before the vote on its dissolution, Netanyahu slipped into the main hall. He voted for the bill proposed by Likud’s David Amsalem and May Golan to change the procedure for appointing Supreme Court justices. He voted and hightailed it out of there.

At issue, the plan for the dream government headed by the defendant and with the participation of convicted criminals, a former suspect and the rest of the raptors and avengers: to transfer the selection of justices to the government, and from there to approval in the Knesset. And on top of that, to limit the justices' terms.

This is destruction of the Supreme Court, a total politicization of the selection of justices, and most of all, a threat to the entire law-enforcement system.

That’s what awaits you. It’s like a horse’s head in the justices’ bed. That’s where Israel is heading. The bill was also on the Knesset agenda last Wednesday. Then it was removed, on Netanyahu’s orders.

Apparently he preferred to wait a week, for clarification of the situation. Now that we’re having an election, the bill could be brought up for a vote. The message came through.

I listened to the speech by Golan, one of the two Likud legislators to propose the bill. From the inarticulate and inane mishmash that included famous hits like “judicial dictatorship,” the following sentence struck me: “With God’s help, we’re returning to Balfour,” the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. We. And another one: “We’ll restore sanity.”

Netanyahu’s defiant move isn’t clear. How does he expect to lure voters from the moderate right to reach a majority in the Knesset when he’s supporting a bill for making the Supreme Court a branch of Likud and the far-right Otzma Yehudit party? The legislation didn’t pass, predictably.

But even if it had passed in the first vote, it would have died because of the dissolution of the Knesset. The bill had just one point: to threaten.

Also supporting this repugnant bill were the allegedly “sane” Likudniks: Yuli Edelstein, Nir Barkat, Gila Gamliel, Tzachi Hanegbi, Avi Dichter and Yisrael Katz. A party primary is coming up and they know the soul of their voters.

MK Yuli Edelstein. He's considered one of Likud's "sane" legislators.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Who got an exemption? Yuval Steinitz, the husband of Supreme Court Justice Gila Canfy Steinitz. He’s apparently more afraid of her than of Amsalem, his foul-mouthed neighbor in the Knesset. It will be interesting to see how Steinitz behaves if a new Netanyahu government passes this legislation and Bibi’s similar bills attacking the court. Would Steinitz abstain? Fake an illness and be absent from the Knesset? Either way, he’d be a full partner to the crime.

Netanyahu isn’t there to play games. If he forms a government, it will be committed to one task: canceling his corruption trial and making mincemeat of his prosecutors. Anyone who doesn’t go along with him won’t be part of the system. The four previous elections, from 2019 to 2021, were born in the same context, a defendant fleeing a conviction.

He’ll bandy about slogans like “a broad national government” that he intends to form. He’ll conceal the Amsalems and Karas from the eyes of the media.

But if he does win a majority, nothing will be illegitimate: a clause allowing the Knesset to legislate something contradicting a Basic Law, an immunity law. And the attorney general will be replaced by a collaborator raising erudite questions about the quality of the evidence in the Netanyahu cases.

Who’s going to stop him? Edelstein? Barkat? Dichter? Seriously? In the end, they’re all Bibi-ists. All Likudniks who aren’t actively working against this trend are Bibi-ists even if they shout and curse like some of their colleagues.

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