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A Statesman and Unifier: Bennett's Failed Experiment in Democracy

An entrepreneur at heart, Israel's outgoing prime minister failed to manage his fragile and complex coalition– which he ran as both a statesman and a unifier ■ As he departs from political life, Bennett turns his back on his declaration to prevent a fifth election campaign

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who announced his retirement from political life, on Wednesday in Jersualem.
Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who announced his retirement from political life, on Wednesday in Jersualem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The writing was on the wall ahead of Naftali Bennett’s departure from political life, from the moment he announced his intention to dissolve the Knesset and be replaced by Yair Lapid. He had no choice. The latest reports from those around him about his passing thoughts were a trial balloon that didn’t gain support. The realistic scenario in which the man who was prime minister until a moment ago wouldn’t pass the electoral threshold is a terrible humiliation. Bennett decided to save himself the pleasure. Let Ayelet Shaked enjoy this adventure.

During Bennett’s retirement announcement Wednesday night, Shaked stood with a sour face. It was not a lack of feeling that put a frozen look on her face during the sentimental words his partner delivered, about her as well. She was trying to calculate the narrow, nearly impossible route that will take her past the electoral threshold and into the Knesset.

Beside her stood the handful that remained in her party, Yamina. More than the Bennett-Lapid coalition was a failed experiment, Yamina was such a political experiment in the end. Bennett is a start-up entrepreneur at heart, frantic throughout his political career. In just one decade since entering the fray, he established, dismantled and reconfigured a slew of political ventures. He went from the “Israelis” through the conquest of Habayit Hayehudi and The New Right to Yamina and the sharp U-turn in June of last year. That last move included turning his back on most of his pompous declarations during the campaign, save for one: I will not allow a fifth election campaign.

In dissolving the Knesset and retiring, there is a huge blunder. Bennett failed in managing his coalition, the most complex that has ever existed here. However, he did a good job of managing the government made up of many parties. He was the first to include an Arab Islamist party in a governing coalition. For most of this government’s life, that party was faithful to the coalition agreements.

It was actually Yamina, the tiny party that got the premiership and a bunch of goodies, that was the first to fold under the pressure. Yamina is Bennett’s great failure. On the one hand he wasn’t wise enough to select more ministers like Matan Kahana, and on the other hand he neglected his own lawmakers, who underwent hell on earth. Some of them chose to abandon him to devote themselves to the people who were slurring and humiliating them.

The joyful face of Idit (“Was it good until the end?”) Silman on Wednesday night, while exchanging whispered secrets with Yoav Kisch, tells the story of a twisted political Stockholm Syndrome. Silman is the Patty Hearst of the Israeli right. In contrast to Amichai Chikli, Nir Orbach and Silman, Kahana, who demonstrated simple, total loyalty and focused on his job (with considerable courage), is being heavily recruited by Gideon Sa’ar and Benny Gantz, even without charging a fee.

Bennett’s retirement speech was a fitting continuation of the way he ran the government: trying to be a statesman and unifier. In contrast, some of the opposition leaders, like Moshe Gafni, accompanied him on his final journey (in politics, for now) with curses and invective. That was his portion every time he went up to the podium.

The 24th Knesset ended its brief existence at the close of a day that symbolized everything that was bad about it during the past year. The coalition was embroiled in fights. Too many leaders of the coalition parties were convinced they were destined to be prime minister and were in a constant campaign, usually one against the other. It had too few responsible adults and too many opportunists. And more than anything, it had a destructive, cynical opposition that spat on the general public and its constituents, with no red lines. It was held captive by one man who is trying to flee justice, and along the way is leaving no stone unturned in order to destroy the foundations of the young experiment itself: Israeli democracy.

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