So Far, Israel’s Bennett Isn’t a Leader

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Naftali Bennett explaining how indifference will lead to a coronavirus lockdown.

The polls published by Channel 13 television this week in honor of the opening of the Knesset’s winter session didn’t reveal any dramatic plot twists since the results of the last election.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has neither strengthened nor weakened, despite his high profile. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has grown a tad stronger, but no poll showed the parties in his bloc with enough seats to form a government.

The good news for Bennett is that the circumstances that allowed him to become prime minister despite heading a party with only six seats haven’t changed. All the parties in his government, despite their plethora of contradictory positions, still have enough good reasons to stick together.

The bad news is that after four months in office, one would have expected Bennett to grow into the job and win further support thanks to the authority, exposure and power the position confers. But that hasn’t happened. Why not?

Likud members, as the heads of the opposition, are constantly trying to dwarf Bennett, claim that the government is illegitimate and stigmatize him as a political swindler. That’s not surprising; it’s their job. Still, also in the governing coalition, no party has any great interest in glorifying Bennett’s leadership or enabling him to consolidate it.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the Kahol Lavan party’s chairman, met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. So did Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who heads Meretz. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the Yesh Atid chairman, flatters Bennett in public but has gone into low gear and is saving himself for the second half of their rotation agreement when he becomes prime minister.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who leads the New Hope party, is hovering at the electoral threshold in the polls and is therefore reserving the option of passing legislation to prevent Netanyahu from running again. And Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, is busy passing the budget and pushing through several reforms for which he’ll get the credit.

Thus Bennett is perceived as the government’s administrative coordinator – more of an equal among equals than a leader who rises above all his partners. Nor is it likely that he’ll be able to alter this image by August 2023, when Lapid replaces him.

He can’t rely on anyone, either in the opposition or the coalition, to do anything to nurture his leadership and bolster his status. It all depends on him and his ability to do something significant in his slightly less than two years left in office.

Bennett is in a difficult position. To maintain his government, he must make sure all his partners are happy, which means letting each of them implement an agenda that doesn’t necessarily mesh with his. At first glance, this greatly reduces his ability to develop as a leader in the key areas that have been handed over to his coalition partners.

Still, there are plenty of important issues where he can promote the public welfare without stepping on anyone’s toes. And if he succeeds, he’ll get the credit.

The list isn’t short. Contending with violence in the Arab community is a major national challenge. Speeding up the greater Tel Aviv area’s subway plan will require the prime minister’s active involvement.

A plan to help the unemployed (joblessness has remained high in recent months even though the government has canceled benefits for people on unpaid leave), including through professional retraining and encouraging entrepreneurship, would produce high socioeconomic returns. (After all, it was Bennett who coined the slogan “if it’s not about earning a living, it doesn’t interest me.”) Soaring apartment prices are a huge social challenge.

Finally, of course, there’s achieving governability in the Negev – amid the unrecognized Bedouin villages – and developing it, including by building an international airport and speeding up the army’s relocation of its intelligence complex from Tel Aviv. After all, Bennett used the Negev in his election campaign.

And in contrast to his economic program – the so-called Singapore Plan for which he won’t be able to win the consent of Lieberman and his other coalition partners – there shouldn’t be any significant disagreements about addressing the Negev and the other challenges cited above.

To advance these goals, Bennett will occasionally have to raise his head from his preoccupation with the coronavirus and security issues. The question is whether he’s keen to translate his campaign slogans into real-life change or simply stick with “prime minister of Israel” on his CV.

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