The Fall of Israel's High-tech Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett

Naftali Bennett was Israel’s first technocrat premier. The shattering of the high-tech bubble could also bode ill for those who supported him

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
Bennett. To attain power he shed the old ideologies and appeared as a high-techie in the reserves.
Bennett. To attain power he shed the old ideologies and appeared as a high-techie in the reserves.Credit: Emil Salman
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

“Israel went back to being managed.” That is how Naftali Bennett described the accomplishments of his government at the press conference where he announced his decision to call an election. From the first day to the last, that was the heart of the Bennett government’s ideology. After a long period of frustrating jolts, under previous governments, Bennett depicted himself as being just what the State of Israel needed – an efficient CEO.

In accordance with that objective, the heads of the parties that made up the coalition went from being political leaders to something akin to vice presidents in charge of an accelerated implementation of reforms – in transportation, the economy, the health system. “We came to work,” Bennett said repeatedly. In an office, it doesn’t matter what the worldview of the person sitting next to you is; what’s important is efficiency and productivity.

It was the realization of a fantasy that had resonated among the public for years: Israel needs a good CEO. The demand was backed by the economics columnists and by the media in general. In an era in which all spheres of life are subordinate to the economy and the logic of instrumentality, there is actually no justification for the ideological politics of the previous century. For every problem, a technical solution needs to be found, and the leader is a manager who sits at the head of a team of experts and engineers. Decisions are made rationally on the basis of quantitative indices. The conflict with the Palestinians is also a matter that requires management and maintenance.

All of that was particularly suited to the conditions that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic: a health-and-economic crisis that is perceived as a complex logistical problem, which needs to be solved with the aid of experts.

But there was also a broader social context that legitimized the “government of change”: the flourishing of the high-tech industry. The industry grew under Benjamin Netanyahu, who was himself sometimes described as an efficient CEO. But when Netanyahu turned in messianic directions to cobble together his religious-nationalist base, the high-tech nation dissociated itself from him and moved to crown a high-tech king in its form and image.

Bennett, the former director general of the Yesha Council of settlements, and religiously observant, is in fact quite an ideological person. But to attain power he shed the old ideologies and appeared as a high-techie in the reserves – a contemporary alternative to the reserve major generals and chiefs of staff who led the country in the past. Plunging into action, he quickly implemented reforms that were to the liking of international credit rating companies such as Moody’s.

For decades, secular columnists in this newspaper and other platforms predicted a future for Israel that was as clear as it was grim. From year to year, they asserted, Israel is becoming more religious and more nationalist, and eventually it will become a quasi-Iran. That would have happened long ago, had a decisive element not cropped up in the fabric of Israeli life: the high-tech economy. High-tech is the engine that is bringing about a social and ideological change no less dramatic than that ushered in by religion. It’s a lot stronger than all kinds of rabbis who try to get people to “return to religion,” like Amnon Yitzhak, or like the Religious Affairs Ministry’s “Jewish Identity Directorate.” High-tech creates a rational, secular ideology and worldview; it has an attractive sheen, and an aura of success about it.

Every social group that intertwines its fate with high-tech moves toward the political center. That’s especially true for sections of the Mizrahi middle class and of the religious Zionist movement. As a result, a significant segment of the right-wing camp became a post-ideological social group that turned its back on Netanyahu and cast its vote for right-center parties. The more high-tech burst forward and the number of local unicorns swelled, the greater the number of segments of society that jumped on the train. Members of the Arab community who benefited from the economic surge also preferred to leave national identity aside. Technological capitalism dismantles all the traditional structures.

Dark clouds

In the end, the Bennett-Lapid government’s program has been to expedite and perpetuate this process: to bring about a situation in which the bulk of the Israeli economy is based on the high-tech industry, and thus to create around that sector a stable coalition, both political and social, that will block any counter-processes. And it might succeed, at that. There’s no reason to disparage the strength of high-tech – the most transformative force in our world today.

But the high-tech economy has an Achilles’ heel. The rapid decline of the value of the tech companies that occurred in the stock markets this spring suggests that the hype around high-tech was perhaps excessive. As the air leaks out of the high-tech bubble, the societal elements that recently came to the party will return to their traditional ideological bases. At the same time, techies are also arousing hostility, particularly among those who can’t take part in the technological celebration and are also being trampled by it economically.

From this perspective, the future of the coalition of change is intertwined with the future of the high-tech economy and the ideology it creates, both in Israel and internationally. As of this moment, dark clouds are gathering on the horizon of the government of the technocrats. The loss of a parliamentary majority by the government of Emmanuel Macron in France, which was based on a similar rationale, reflects the growing opposition to the idea of a CEO-leader.

Leaders of that stripe can demonstrate efficiency, but they frequently suffer from a deficit in an essential attribute of the political realm: charisma. Naftali Bennett exemplified this well with his constrained bar-mitzvah smiles. In our time, too, it appears as though parts of the public still long for a charismatic leader who is borne on waves of national and religious emotion.

Even the tech companies themselves are giving rise to eccentric CEOs who are chaotically inclined, like Elon Musk. Their form of behavior is already less subordinate to rational technological logic and more to the roller coaster of cryptocurrency. It’s possible that the next leader of the capitalist center in Israel will possess the same style. But that already depends on how well bitcoin is doing.

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