Analysis

Netanyahu Just Gave Bennett the Temporary Gift of the Defense Portfolio. It’s a Sign He’s Losing His Grip

The merger of Naftali Bennett’s small right-wing party into Likud reflects Netanyahu’s paranoia as he and Benny Gantz each struggle to form a governing coalition

Netanyahu and Bennett at the Knesset, Jerusalem, October 15, 2018.
David Bachar

The imminent appointment of Naftali Bennett to what is traditionally the second-most influential position in Israel, defense minister, is almost meaningless in the here and now. In theory, this official wields enormous power. In practice, most of the power on security matters resides with the prime minister, especially when it comes to Benjamin Netanyahu, now premier for nearly 11 consecutive years and also defense minister for this past year.

Bennett, assuming his appointment goes ahead, will not be able to implement any of his ambitious plans to revolutionize the military. (His plans aren’t just to strike harder in Gaza. Bennett has spent years thinking deeply about the Israel Defense Forces’ structure and has unorthodox views on the defense budget.) He will be a temporary minister in a caretaker government that’s unlikely to last more than a few more months, at most.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 47Haaretz

His only chance of leaving his mark on Israeli military doctrine is if he gets to stay on as defense minister in whatever government is formed next, whenever. But Netanyahu won’t and can’t promise Bennett anything more than this temporary ineffectual post.

Neither does this move have much immediate political significance. Sure, Bennett is now cementing the three Knesset seats of his Hayamin Hehadash party in Netanyahu’s minority bloc of 55 seats. But it’s not as if there really was ever a serious option that Bennett and his partners Ayelet Shaked and Matan Kahana could break with the right wing and join Benny Gantz’s coalition on their own. They know this would have burned their bridges with Likud in the future.

But even though Friday’s move will have little impact on either the security or political situation in the short term, it’s significant for what it tells us about Netanyahu’s state of mind, as well as the future of the Israeli right.

Netanyahu just gave Bennett, his biggest rival on the right, the Defense Ministry. He just gave him his own second-biggest portfolio. He has just made Bennett his deputy for security matters, in effect. Now Bennett will be in every forum dealing with the most sensitive matters, and with a status he never had before. This is the Bennett whose party failed to pass the electoral threshold in the April election and who after the September election is the leader of the Knesset's tiniest party. Why give him this massive job, even temporarily?

But Bennett leveraged his meager political assets brilliantly and in recent weeks made Netanyahu believe that he was considering defecting, along with Shaked and Kahana, from the Bibi bloc to Gantz’s. Even if this was a realistic possibility — and it almost certainly wasn’t — those three seats wouldn’t have been enough to give Gantz a majority. But Netanyahu took this threat seriously.

Bennett perfectly preyed on Netanyahu’s paranoia and is now reaping the rewards. Netanyahu could have bought more time in government and Bennett’s loyalty as the leader of a party of eight lawmakers if he had agreed to appoint him defense minister a year ago, when Avigdor Lieberman resigned from the position. But Netanyahu refused, taking the job for himself. Now Bennett has taken it from him, for a lot less.

This isn’t just the fulfillment of a dream for special forces Maj. Bennett, who sometimes seems as if he has never quite been discharged from IDF reserve duty, he loves talking about it so much. By merging Hayamin Hehadash into Likud, as Netanyahu has promised him, he’s stealing a march on the succession battle. Bennett always knew that to be prime minister he’d have to be Likud leader first. And with Netanyahu blocking his path, he’d have had to wait until Bibi was gone to rejoin Likud, thereby losing the chance to run for leader immediately after Netanyahu left.

Now Bennett is being allowed in, from the main door, while Netanyahu is still leader. And not only is he now going to be a Likudnik, he’ll be defense minister. It doesn’t make him the front-runner to replace Netanyahu quite yet; he’s still a newcomer to Likud. But it certainly puts him in the race.