An unusual conjuncture will bring Naftali Bennett to be sworn in as prime minister Sunday, with few people in his orbit believing him to be the right person in the right place. He became anathema overnight to the right wing, who see him as a swindler who joined up with the right to topple their adored leader.
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His own tiny party includes a few grumpy lawmakers who look like they are caught in a situation that is well beyond their pay grade. His new coalition partners, too, are convinced that he doesn’t deserve the position; they see him chiefly as a contractor for the project to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It’s hard to succeed under such conditions, which means Bennett has no choice but to succeed: He must not constantly look to some imagined base, he must resist the temptation to put spin on his actions and be always thinking about exit points and the next election. If he fails, the left and the right will tear him to pieces with equal pleasure. If the government makes it to the two-year mark and the handoff with Yair Lapid, it will be considered a great success, but it must also have something to show for it: in transportation, infrastructure, education, the labor market and a reduction of crime in Arab communities. There are enough issues to work on besides the eclectic and contradictory composition of the new government.
Bennett will also face the enormous burden of Netanyahu’s legacy. There will be time enough to discuss this later, but it’s already clear that every move Bennett makes will be scrutinized and compared to those of his predecessor. The outgoing prime minister’s Stentorian chorus will turn up the volume even higher and make sure everyone hears that Netanyahu did it better, stronger and faster.
It will be earsplitting background noise that could cause Bennett to devote too much time to fending off the Bibist onslaughts. After all, Netanyahu patented the formula according to which only he may do things like promise to annex the settlements and not follow through, approve the sale of advanced fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates, avoid expelling the residents of Khan al-Ahmar and approve the delivery of money-filled suitcases to Hamas.
When Bennett does the same, he’ll be attacked mercilessly. He’ll be denounced as a weak, spineless leftist who collaborates with Arabs. It could lead him to preposterous reactions, as when, two days before the last election, he promised in a live broadcast on the right-leaning, pro-Netanyahu Channel 20 News that he would not sit in the same government as Lapid.
Throughout the last four elections, Bennett defined himself in relation to Netanyahu: He reacted to him, followed the agenda the prime minister dictated, tried to pass him on the right and excelled in running terrible, shallow campaigns. Bennett will have to decide very soon how much space and weight to give to Netanyahu, his legacy and his talking points. The only way for him to handle Netanyahu’s legacy is to take its problematic components and make them into something better.
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Bennett is not expected to solve big problems like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the relationship between the state and religion. The quality of life in Israel will improve if he makes good on half of the promises in the new government’s basic guidelines and coalition agreements regarding health, education, infrastructure and Arab communities.
For that to happen, he will have to act more like a forward – taking the initiative and scorning goals – than as a goalie – trying to block all the balls and the flame bait kicked in his direction by the right. Their rage for him is rooted in three sins: the breaking of a promise, the alliance with political rivals and the ousting of Netanyahu, not in that order. His sins cannot be absolved with rhetoric, but rather with visible, significant actions, with maturity and with the ability to serve as integrator for the motliest government Israel has ever seen.