It’s inappropriate to give career advice to someone I didn’t vote for, but the situation requires it. Naftali Bennett ought to remain in the political ring. In recent days, he has vacillated between taking a timeout from political life and remaining for the next election.
Bennett was given the prime minister’s job to serve as a kind of project manager for several parties that sought to extricate Israel from Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip, and from the political crisis that dragged it into four elections within two years. He did a good job as prime minister, but he failed in managing his party and therefore ultimately lost the job.
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His Yamina party has held feverish discussions over the last few days about whether the party should continue to exist and, if so, who should head it. It’s fairly clear that if Ayelet Shaked heads it, the chances of Netanyahu returning to power would increase.
Shaked sees no problem with Netanyahu. Her natural habit is the right, on the outskirts of the far right. Yes, she’s a secular woman from Tel Aviv who worked in high-tech, but she can nevertheless live very well with lawmakers Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir and the criminal defendant Netanyahu.
Bennett and Matan Kahana differ from her – not in their opinions, but in the way they view Israeli society. They don’t see centrists and center-leftists as bitter rivals or enemies. They understood the center-left bloc’s fears of the dangers posed by Bibi-ism and sympathized with them. And after a year in which they and their Yamina colleagues faced a cruel and venomous campaign of personal attacks, they understand those dangers even better.
Shaked, in contrast, makes light of them. It’s hard to predict whether a party headed by Shaked would make it into the Knesset, but it’s easy to predict that such a party would see itself as a natural part of Netanyahu’s bloc.
In his final interviews before handing the Prime Minister’s Office over to Yair Lapid, Bennett didn’t promise to stay away from a government with Netanyahu. But he, unlike Shaked, can tell the difference between Netanyahu before the criminal investigations and indictments and Netanyahu after them.
In his view, Netanyahu can be prime minister only if there are sufficient checks on his attempts to pass legislation or otherwise undermine the law enforcement system to escape justice. Thus, in deciding whether to take a break from politics, Bennett must weigh not only his personal and career considerations, but also the broader question of his possible role in placing such restraints on Netanyahu.
This is how Bennett views his role right now – to serve as a check on Netanyahu, whether through building a political framework for the statesmanlike right that would take votes away from the pro-Netanyahu bloc and prevent it from getting the 61 Knesset seats needed to form a government, or, if Netanyahu nevertheless forms the next government, by serving as a check on measures aimed at furthering the latter’s personal interests.
Effectively, Bennett gives his colleagues in the center-left the option of a government headed by Netanyahu that isn’t a completely right-wing government. Instead, one or more parties from the current governing coalition would join the Netanyahu-led government and do what Kahol Lavan, under the leadership of Benny Gantz and then-Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, did in the last Netanyahu government: act as gatekeepers who would repel dubious ideas meant to save Netanyahu’s skin. And such a government won’t last long, as we have already learned.
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Yet if Bennett plans to take part in such a government merely to gain another few months, this won’t be good news. The idea might be clear to him, but he has already proven to have little skill at choosing people for his party who are capable of living with such confusion. It would be a sure-fire recipe for pressure on members of his party that would ultimately cause it to fall apart, and also for frustrating some of its voters, who would see Bennett as violating his promises.
His differentiation from Gideon Sa’ar and Avigdor Lieberman – rightists who unequivocally ruled out sitting with Netanyahu – gained him the prime minister’s job last time, but it also eventually broke up his party and his government. Consequently, he must be more explicit in defining the dangers that Netanyahu and a fully right-wing government would pose and thereby make such a government unfeasible. But no, he shouldn’t resign.