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Naftali Bennett’s Dilemma

Even if the final results make him a kingmaker once more, Bennett is incapable of leading the anyone but Bibi camp, even if he very much wants to

Israel Harel
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Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett on election night on Tuesday.
Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett on election night on Tuesday.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Israel Harel

The only speech worthy of a leader Tuesday night was by Naftali Bennett. Now is the time to heal and to mend the ruptures. A genuine right wing aspires to unconditional love and moves away from baseless hatred.

Despite appearances, these words did not issue from the throat of a naive, enthusiastic Bnei Akiva counselor. Since entering public life Bennett has never concealed the fact that these are his values, the ones his parents raised him on. The upheaval of the Six-Day War caused his parents to leave a life of luxury in San Francisco. They found here a country that was dazed and confused by the brilliant military feat. Its leaders, they drummed into their offspring, did not manage to translate into the language of action the potential afforded them by the unprecedented victory. Had they taken advantage, as soon as the fighting ended, of that domestically and globally propitious time, they would have solved our security, economic and social problems for generations to come.

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Naftali was raised on this message from infancy. This is also why he warned, in his speech of healing and mending, that Israel’s existence is not guaranteed unless we make a very great effort to guarantee it – an idea that is not at the top of the agenda of the heads of a few of the other “Zionist” parties.

Even though he used this admonishing tone before the election, too, the voting results that are open to analysis now already show that few people outside of Bennett’s core base of “classic” religious Zionists voted for his Yamina party. It turns out that it’s not enough to put earning a living, or fighting the coronavirus pandemic, at the top of the order of priorities, or to demonstrate greater integrity, managerial and decision-making skills than the current government. During a prolonged crisis of leadership and values, the nation of Israel expect a greater message, a new song.

Although in striving to find this formula he is also far ahead of other party leaders on the ideological political map – such as Yair Lapid, Merav Michaeli and Benny Gantz – Bennett is not yet ready to offer a profound formula that can answer this deep yearning and excite followers. For that reason, most of his support still comes from a camp that is important but, at least for now, small in size. It has an outsize role in the state’s genuine serving elite, but it still lacks the power needed to install one of its members in the prime minister’s office.

Even within his own camp, the national-religious camp, Bennett is not seen as someone who could carry the overall “story” of religious Zionism, or of the state – if only on account of his lifestyle. Although the majority of this camp lives a rather bourgeois life in cities and suburbs, its core ethos is the pioneering spirit of Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, of Negohot and Sderot, not Ra’anana and Givat Shmuel. This has always been the case, particularly since the Six-Day War. And in a society with this ethos, leaders must set a personal example.

Since Bennett has failed to attract a significant number of followers from outside his natural circle of affiliation, his freedom of maneuver is extremely limited – especially since he has promised “There will be no fifth election.” Even if the final results make him a kingmaker once more, Bennett is incapable of leading the “anyone but Bibi” camp, even if he very much wants to. Even if they could overcome their egos, Netanyahu’s opponents can’t let a right-wing prime minister meet even the tiniest minimum of his promises to voters: legalizing the new communities in Judea and Samaria, passing a law allowing the Knesset to override the High Court of Justice and annexing the Jordan Valley. Bennett, together with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party, could force Netanyahu to carry these out, as well as restoring sovereignty and security in the Negev and the Galilee.

Happy Holiday.

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