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Bennett's Partners See Him as a Manager, Not a Leader. And He's Acting Like It

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Illustration.
Credit: Amos Biderman

Israeli prime ministers come into the position by one of two routes. The more obvious is by keeping a determined and systematic, sometimes obsessive, eye on the goal: the ultimate political peak. The second is by arriving at the tip-top of the pyramid in an unexpected way.

Unusually for a democracy, here the second route predominates. Seven out of 13, to be precise. Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir. Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir (in their first terms in office), Ehud Olmert and Naftali Bennett.

Like Olmert, Bennett announced his run for the premiership only when the election campaign was well underway. Olmert became the candidate with Sharon’s sinking into a coma; Bennett hurdled over frenetic columns, rising and falling, in the public opinion polls during the last election round, and tarried before explicitly announcing he was a candidate for the highest position.

Both of them were not perceived as leaders at any stage by any critical mass of voters. And both of them came into the job because of (or thanks to) strong leaders, greater than they were. Olmert, due to the immovability of Sharon’s leadership; Bennett, due to the collective desire that transcended camps to get rid of Benjamin Netanyahu, before his leadership endangered Israel’s very existence as a liberal democracy and (relatively, relatively) sane country.

At the end of the first quarter of the interesting coalition he established with, and thanks to, Yair Lapid, Bennett still looks like a politician without a direction. A week ago I wrote here that the prime minister, contrary to an old slogan of Ehud Barak’s, is trying to be both a buddy and a leader. In the coalition, there are those who will say, without resentment but also without sadness, that no one is relating to him as the leader. Nor are his cabinet ministers. Some of them compare him to an administrator, a person who in light of the known constraints has been chosen to head the board of directors of a company in crisis.

Like Bennett, Olmert too was crowned by most of his partners as a good administrator. Inclusive, professional, to the point, sociable and generous with compliments. Like Olmert, Bennett isn’t managing to fill his predecessor’s shoes. The former plunged rapidly after the second Lebanon war and the corruption investigations. The latter isn’t gaining altitude beyond the six Knesset seats his Yamina party won and a reasonable percentage in the surveys of suitability to be prime minister.

Sometimes it seems Bennett is simply not making an effort to project anything else. Consciously or unconsciously, he functions like exactly that: a manager who isn’t a leader. The opposite of his predecessor, who as is well-known was perhaps a “leader” but a serial and chronic failure in management theory and basic human relations.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Credit: Emil Salman

Hole in the hasbara

In the test of his performance, Bennett is conducting himself not at all badly. However, there are places where the deficit in leadership “weight” is more palpable. This is so in the handling of the coronavirus. On the one hand, the logistics of managing the pandemic are more successful than the previous government’s. On the other hand, in light of Bennett’s reluctance about more significant steps, nearly all the initiatives for any restrictions that were required have been repressed and have melted away – alongside the expansion of the circle of people vaccinated and the giving of the booster shot. At a later stage, this was presented as purely ideology: vaccines only, restrictions nyet. That is not the truth.

Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz are working well together but there is something wrong with the information department of their pandemic war room. Both with the information that flows out and the information that is taken in. Regarding the latter, there was a grave intelligence failure regarding the vote of the American Food and Drug Administration. Here, they had briefed the media that “there is no doubt” the booster would be approved in the United Sates for all ages. When the decision came out (boosters for people 65 and over and at-risk populations, for now), our decision-makers were dismayed and tried to put out the fire, instead of having prepared a suitable public diplomacy message in advance for the possibility of such an outcome.

A man getting the booster vaccine at a vaccine clinic in Tel Aviv, AugustCredit: Hadas Parush

But the public diplomacy hasn’t been a resounding success. The vaccination numbers are good but not excellent and when everything is fragile, including trust, statements like the prime minister’s about parents (“Let them fight among themselves”) are a public explosion and a moral blot.

Bennett was graced with serving as prime minister without real public support because of Netanyahu’s divisiveness and extremism. Israeli parents, nerve-wracked and Zoom-haggard, really don’t need this after 18 exhausting months of pandemic.

In matters of statesmanship, too, it became clear to us this week that not everything is Turkish delight. The White House did heap the honors on Netanyahu’s successor, only so Bennett’s predecessor would never darken the doorstep of the Oval Office ever again. But the picture is more complicated. The fact that Bennett is a man of the hardline right and lacking in diplomatic experience led, in retrospect, to some spoilage of the diplomatic mission. A summit with a thorn in it. The Democrats quickly approved the billion dollars for replenishing the stock of ammunition for Iron Dome, but the ballyhooed delay and the tying of President Joe Biden’s hands are also a clear message to Israel from the progressive wing in the United Sates: There is no free lunch and there are bigger things than the grudge against Netanyahu.

Bennett is still stalking a new diplomatic path. Not only is Yamina not a ruling party – it’s a party with a question mark hovering over its very existence in the not-too-distant future. The measures he is advancing with Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana in areas close to the hearts of the knitted kippa sector are interesting. So is the appointment of the head of the new hasbara (public diplomacy) unit.

A pertinent aside: The prime minister’s skimpy presence in the media and the social media, and the meager volume he occupies in the discourse, are not serving him well. True, our ears were weighted down with the burden of Bibi’s incessant “compressor,” as the late Amos Oz once described it, but the other extreme, too, is too extreme. No one is going to market you except you yourself and your team.

Back to the appointment in the hasbara unit. Elad Tenne is a religious, liberal and progressive media man. Before him, Bennett courted another (far more experienced) figure, she too religious and liberal. This suits the new prime minister’s messages and actions. His feet are planted in the right but his eyes are crossing towards the center.

Only eight years in politics, and the chairman of Yamina in its umpteenth incarnation has already put on and taken off too many costumes. From the bullying beginning (“Yisrael Sheli” – My Israel) to the loss of the path with New Right, an adventure that bumbled between a renewing center-right and a wacko right that “defeats the High Court of Justice” and abuses peaceniks in Rabin Square. In the end, he looked in the mirror and remembered that when all is said and done, he is a high-tech guy from Ra’anana. And more importantly, that is nothing to be ashamed of. After all, some of his best friends are such types.

On the rooftops of Tel Aviv

Netanyahu’s Facebook Live broadcast on the eve of Sukkot, in which he strengthened the fake news spread by his supporters when he imitated Biden “falling asleep” in front of Bennett, provoked two types of reactions – dismissive and shocked. The first response was that if he plans to mock the U.S. president for the next three years and four months (at least), it shows that the penny has dropped for him; that he’s realized he won’t be returning  to the Prime Minister’s Office. The second version was that Netanyahu is so self-confident, smug and dangerous that he isn’t afraid to show contempt for the leader of the world’s greatest power, believing that if he returns to office, there will be no price for having done so. 

Both responses are mistaken. The Netanyahu of the past 100 days cannot be assessed using rational means. He has gone beyond the limits of the logical, enlightened environment. He has lost his judgment, control over his mouth, and over his actions. There is no point in attributing complex motives to him, or any consideration for the future. Fact: Likud issued a clarification, albeit somewhat lame, about the offensive imitation, saying the mockery was meant to insult Bennett. But several hours passed until that correction was issued, indicative of the God-awful commotion that must have taken place in the imitator’s office, when it came down to explaining what he meant.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Anyone who missed the 25 minutes of video taken outside his office, on the balcony of the 12th floor of Metzudat Ze’ev, missed some comic moments. Netanyahu was filmed by one of his sidekicks, who in an obsequious tone quoted him some of the “surfers’ responses.” Come here a second, Netanyahu beckoned, and gestured with his hand at the Tel Aviv skyline, dotted with skyscrapers. Before I came, there was nothing here, boasted the man who in his 12 years as prime minister was estranged from Tel Aviv, its spirit and its essence. He never toured the city with its mayor, for example. Now he was speaking with the pride of “Bibi, builder of cities;” as if before him, Tel Aviv had been a lone house on the beach. 

You’ve surely heard of the “tax blunder.” Netanyahu revealed it in his broadcast. The government, he said, had raised the tax on Netflix. Why? Because viewers had gotten fed up with the content broadcast by the tendentious media, the Soviet-Bolshevik media, as he put it, and they are moving en masse to streaming. The government is trying to stop this, which is why it raised the taxes, he explained. The tax initiative (which has yet to be approved), is of course on all services purchased from abroad but consumed in Israel. 

These two comments cannot be dealt with using intellectual tools. If he believes what he’s saying, it’s sad. But it’s reasonable to assume that it’s simply his familiar tendency to lie, to utter outrageous fictions, in the belief that just saying them gives them some validity. Because the “prime minister” said it.

The father, the son

Yes, those around him continue to call him by his previous title. This is the command, the directive and the expectation. Not only does his secretary ask those she calls to wait for “a call from the prime minister,” the madness has spread to other circles, like an infection. For example, when the aides of MKs get calls from the Likud chairman’s office, they are asked to wait for “the prime minister’s political adviser.” The one getting on the line is in fact Iki Cohen, the opposition leader’s adviser (who, by the way, never worked in the Prime Minister’s Office). 

The man with a villa in Caesarea, who over the past 12 years has squeezed out huge sums from the public purse, complained that the media isn’t covering the large sums invested in the homes belonging to Bennett, Yair Lapid, and Benny Gantz (solely for security reasons). This is the same man who, on the eve of his departure, forced the ministerial committee for Shin Bet affairs to extend security, car usage and drivers to his wife and two sons for a year after he left office, at a cost of millions of shekels.

With a huge amount of enriched and effervescent uranium hovering over his head, he spoke at length about Bennett’s “Iran failure.” He dismissed the favorable reception Bennett received in Sharm al-Sheikh, saying he had met with President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi eight times. On Facebook Live two weeks ago, he had said it was six times. Exponential growth that’s just imaginary, as with the Tel Aviv skyline. 

Frustrated, irritated and bitter, as only the one who scored the most unnecessary own-goal in the history of politics can be, he is totally seized with convulsions of frustration and reckoning. Once we would say that there is Benjamin, and there is Yair. There is a veteran politician and there is a reckless, spoiled young man. But the lines have merged. Yair-ism is Bibi-ism, and vice versa. The driving forces are exposed. There is no one around him to calm him down. His wife, say people who have encountered her, is even more riled up and inflamed than he is. In the two previous periods in which Netanyahu was in the opposition, before 1996 and before 2009, there were MKs and advisers who used to tell him to appear in public less frequently, so as not to remind people who he is.

But today there’s no one, just two sidekicks and a crazy family, wallowing in its wrath. The son, for example, on Thursday sent out an invitation to a right-wing demonstration. Location: Malchei Yisrael Square (its name before it was renamed Rabin Square). The organizer of the event is Orly Lev, star harasser on behalf of the bereaved family in Caesarea, and a favorite of the neighboring family. 

After the change of government, there were those in Likud who hoped Netanyahu would draw conclusions, regroup and steer himself and his faction in a more statesmanlike fashion. Even Miki Zohar understood the need. In an interview with Maariv, he said, “If we do not assume a statesmanlike approach, and a respectful and inclusive discourse, we will again not win the next election and we will again not reach 61 seats.” Zohar said the most banal things: that his party should address the moderate right, those who had voted for Gideon Sa’ar and Gantz, to explain its positions, not to deprecate its opponents. Elementary, dear Bibi.

Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar at the Knesset, today.Credit: Noam Moskowitz/Knesset

Poor Zohar. It didn’t help that he had renewed his pledge of loyalty to Netanyahu so long as he remained in Likud; he was broadsided. Yaakov Bardugo, chief conspiracy theorist of the Bibi-ists, wondered in this context about the questioning Zohar underwent last year (on suspicion he had threatened the attorney general). After all, it’s well known that the primary mission of the police’s Lahav 433 division is to improve the style of political discourse in the ruling party.

What Zohar understood, Netanyahu is unable to grasp. His evil instinct controls him. Zohar, by the way, was number 25 on the Likud ticket. Why didn’t any of the top 10, the experienced ones, the ones in their sixties with ideas about eventually replacing Netanyahu, not give a similar interview? What are they afraid of? That the Bibi-ist beast will pounce on and defile them? If they do not stand up, challenge, lay it on the line, how will they distinguish themselves, how will they shape a new leadership? Meanwhile, they are engaged in silent wars of succession, some from near (Nir Barkat) and some from afar (Gilad Erdan).

The first Mizrahi prince

The meekness and shallowness of Likud officials was accurately diagnosed by Aharon Abuhatzeira, who passed away this week. He rarely spoke in public. After the disintegration of his Tami party and his political and legal crash, Abuhatzeira became a Likud member. In December 2019, he supported Gideon Saar when he ran against Netanyahu in the party primary. In March of that year, he gave an interview to Yedioth Ahronoth’s Avi Shoshan, his nephew, a month before the first of the four elections. “Netanyahu will no longer be prime minister,” he declared. 

His experience and wisdom led him to that conclusion, even if was a bit premature. He pointed to the Likud leader’s style, to the police investigations. In private conversations in recent years, Abuhatzeira expressed disgust with the rage and brutality of some Likud members. He couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t understand it.

He said Likud’s ministers had been buried under Netanyahu, and none would manage to succeed him.  In that he was apparently also on the money. The main leadership candidates in Likud are now Barkat and Yossi Cohen, neither of whom were ever ministers, along with Erdan. The rise of the latter came only after he preferred not to serve anymore as a minister under Netanyahu, who had abused him plenty; instead, he moved across the sea, far from the Bibi-ist toxic streams.

(Erdan got publicly stung this week by Foreign Minister Lapid; in response to the ambassador’s tweet taking credit for successfully organizing a boycott of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, Lapid tweeted, “That’s how it is when finally there’s a government that comes to work!” In other words, it wasn’t you, man, it was us.)

Likud’s political princes were the sons of the pre-state underground fighters who became the elected officials of Herut, Likud’s forerunner. But our politics also had princes of Mizrahi descent. Their noble ancestry was religious. So it was with Moshe Nissim, son of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim. And so it was with Abuhatzeira. His father was Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhatzeira (the “Baba Haki”). His uncle was the Baba Sali. Both were mythic rabbinical figures among Moroccan Jewry. 

The nephew went into politics. Aharon was the first Mizrahi politician outside the mainstream parties who demanded equal opportunities, and revolted against the discrimination that prevailed. More precisely, he was the first such politician on the right. Many of those who emerged from the (Mizrahi) Black Panthers were assimilated into the deep left. When he faced criminal allegations and felt persecuted, he left the NRP in the early 1980s, founded Tami (a Hebrew acronym for the Movement for Israeli Heritage), and ran on its ticket for the Knesset. It was a sectorial, Mizrahi religious party with a platform similar to that on which Shas was founded two years later. When once asked why Tami had failed and Shas succeeded, he said it was because of the latter’s spiritual leadership.  He hadn’t had such leadership, but to the Mizrahi public it’s important. 

He was a politician with keen senses and impressive intelligence. He flew the ethnic flag and raised the cry of the deprived, but there was no hatred in him. He did not rant against the Ashkenazim, he never scolded or insulted anyone. 

Abuhatzeira would have preferred to burn in hell before going to the Knesset podium to give David Amsalem’s “maniac speech,” or before calling an antagonist a “servant,” as did Miri Regev. Such elected officials turned Mizrahism into an axe to grind with, and ethnicity into an even more frightening demon than it once had been. It was the opposite of what Abuhatzeira wanted. The opposite of what any ethnic group needs, or wants.

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