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Bennett Refuses to Be a Leader, and That's a Problem for Israel

Yair Assulin
Yair Assulin
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Naftali Bennett speaks at a memorial service for former prime ministers and presidents who have died, last week.
Naftali Bennett speaks at a memorial service for former prime ministers and presidents who have died, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Yair Assulin
Yair Assulin

The biggest problem currently facing Naftali Bennett as prime minister, both in the immediate context of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and in a wider context as well, is his refusal, conscious or otherwise, to be prime minister. In other words, his refusal to be a leader, to show the way and have some vision.

With each passing day, it seems that Bennett is devoting much energy to evading the essence of his role – to be the one telling the story of Israel’s reality. Not just being the main protagonist, not just being the one who acts one way or another within the available space, but the one who creates contexts, the one whose vision and the criteria he sets in word and deed, with the symbols and ethos he creates, sets the framework within which the public experiences reality, judges it and determines its feelings about it. One should remember that the prime minister of a nation-state is the lens through which the public views reality. If he refuses to be a lens, many people find themselves lost in darkness.

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The basic role of any storyteller, of anyone weaving together worlds, of any significant leader, is to instill in the hearts of readers or citizens the sense that the things which happen or are said have some significance, which is why they are here, in the story; that even if for now things look broken, confused, stuck, there is someone leading the ship forward. Therefore, as literature teaches us, there is never a story without a narrator. If the prime minister is not the narrator, other forces tell the story, turning him into one more minor character in the story they weave. And no, being the narrator does not necessarily mean being a forceful or solitary leader. There are many ways of narrating a story.

Calling on Bennett to turn from being a character in someone else’s story into being the narrator compels him to first of all formulate to himself what his narrative aesthetics are, what are the relations he wants to forge with his readers and listeners, the way in which he wishes to impart content. Without this, the chances of getting the public to act are almost nonexistent. Certainly not at a time in which politics are crumbling and anyone wishing to forge a new relationship with the public needs to formulate a much more transparent story, more critical and reflective, but still a story.

This problem – Bennett’s shirking the role of narrator – is just as critical when it comes to his relations with his coalition partners. His ability to keep them together for a lengthy period – certainly with only six Knesset seats behind him – lies in his ability to create a narrative that is strong and tight, filled with vision, which will give them a sense that they exist due to the story he is narrating, not that the story exists because of them, but that without it, they and their existence are much duller.

It sometimes seems that Bennett even disdains this whole issue of narratives, that he prefers presenting himself as a “manager,” a supposedly sterile concept, rational and technical. But a manager who is busy only with reacting to reality can never become a significant leader. This is also true for a manager who is only occupied with arranging the work schedules of the people under him, who will never succeed in leaving his imprint on people’s hearts. Yes, we’re dealing with “hearts” here. Stories, like societies, always revolve primarily around emotions. The ability to delve into a story, even when it’s difficult, even when it touches on sensitive issues, even when it demands that you make an effort, always depends on the narrator’s ability to instill confidence in the reader, on the feelings of partnership and impact it manages to evoke. In the absence of these, a story collapses quite rapidly.

This is the question the prime minister should repeatedly ask himself, realizing that his political future depends almost exclusively on it: What’s your story, Bennett?

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