A fascinating political experiment got underway Sunday night: A government full of contradictions, built entirely of impossible combinations and precedents, some of which deserve to be called historic, won the confidence of the Knesset. At 8:52 P.M. local time Benjamin Netanyahu ended his term as prime minister. Naftali Bennett, who had once served as the head of his office and his punching bag, has replaced him.
If the red phone rings in the middle of the night, it will awaken Naftali and his wife Gilat. At the Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, the night will have passed quietly, undisturbed – at least in regard to national security.
Thirty-five governments have come and gone through the Knesset. For the losers, it has always been difficult – sometimes quite bitter – to hand over the reins of power. In 1996, for example, Netanyahu, who had been elected in the aftermath of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, was received respectfully by a battered and shocked Labor Party when he was sworn into office.
It’s true that there were noisy interruptions, but there has never been such a violent, disgusting, hypocritical and frightening performance as we witnessed by the Netanyahu coalition on Sunday. The show, which was allowed to go on thanks to the deliberate passivity of Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, who loosely silenced and sparingly removed only a minority of the rioters from the chamber, bit by bit. It was true to his purpose of sabotage and harm, up to the bitter end.
Bennett will come to the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday morning. Surprisingly, his predecessor will not be waiting there with a toast or to offer a blessing. Sour, grumpy, not stately – Trump-like until the final moment. On Sunday night, Bennett met with the head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and the military secretary Col. Avi Bluth, and was provided with urgent national security reports. Bennett should be parting ways with Ben-Shabbat as soon as possible. He must not rely on him, given the political services he provided Netanyahu.
On Monday, Bennett will meet with the heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet security service. He has been provided with, and will continue to be fed, classified information that he was not party to, even when he was defense minister.
Sunday’s shameful commotion in the Knesset will quickly be overtaken by the headlines generated by the new prime minister – congratulations from world leaders, an invitation to Washington, the government’s first decisions, appointments and the changing of the guard at the other ministries. Bennett’s ministers will present their plans and Netanyahu’s ministers will complain bitterly until they tire of it.
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In his hurried speech, Bennett displayed the generosity of the victor and the nobility of the leader. At times, he seemed almost like a child surrounded by dozens of bullies in the schoolyard, biting his lip. But then he departed from his prepared text and took a slightly less conciliatory tone toward his detractors.
By comparison, Netanyahu chose to reformulate Yitzhak Rabin’s iconic statement: Crying doesn’t restore leadership. Without an ounce of humility, without a hint of remorse, he recounted his achievements – some true, some exaggerated, some absurd. He called on the new government to confront the Biden administration on the Iranian nuclear issue. He revealed details from his conversations with the U.S. secretary of state and boasted that he was defying the White House’s requests.
Netanyahu was a step away from calling on his hooligans to attack Bennett’s house in Raanana with torches and pitchforks. At the beginning of his speech, he referenced Gideon Hausner, the prosecutor in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, when he presented himself as representing 2 million voters. Netanyahu insulted Bennett, belittled him and asserted that the new government would not act against Iran. It was a miserable, sacrificial speech by a man of the past.
“I will be back,” Netanyahu promised. This is definitely a possibility. “There was no Capitol,” said some of his supporters in reference to the most horrific possible scenario. It should be said: Netanyahu doesn’t have the troops to pull it off. He certainly would have been happy to see demonstrations in his support and against Bennett on Sunday night. But even those who had come to intimidate right-wing lawmakers from the Bennett-Lapid coalition in recent weeks have returned home.
In that context, and in light of Netanyahu’s promise, whenever any member of the new government contemplates undermining its stability, they should remember June 13, which is now Israel’s “January 6.” They should remember, shudder and restrain themselves.
The brutality of Likud lawmakers, the “Religious Fascist” lawmakers’ display of images of those killed in terror attacks, the antisemitic curses of the ultra-Orthodox – these people who dishonored the Knesset in Israel and the world must be allowed a long cooling-off period. Avigdor Lieberman would probably say they need a re-education camp – to be sent there in a wheelbarrow, or without one.
The polls do not yet reflect Bennett’s new status as prime minister. He’s a leader without a party or a base. This he will need to change and quickly. He cannot serve as head of the country without a political edifice underneath him. Sunday night, thousands filled Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Unlike the last time Netanyahu left office in 1999 and the square was filled with celebrants, this time those present were not cheering the new prime minister himself. None of them voted for him. From their point of view, Bennett is the donkey of change, the ministering angel whose whole purpose is to remove Netanyahu.
Therefore, Bennett must not antagonize the rest of the coalition’s political spectrum, that of the Rabin Square celebrants. They constitute most of the new government supporters – they are the ones giving it public legitimacy.
For his part, Yair Lapid, the architect of the new government and Bennett’s successor, has been climbing in the opinion polls recently. On Sunday, he demonstrated why his support should continue to grow: He ceded the time allotted to him for a long speech and confined his remarks to a number of instructive remarks to the Netanyahu bloc. Without Lapid, no government would ever have been formed, and without him there is unlikely to be sufficient public support to sustain it.
Bennett was appointed prime minister Sunday. Lapid became the undisputed candidate of the center-left bloc for prime minister.