Opinion

Netanyahu's Puppet Master Naftali Bennett Is No Fanatic, but Rather a Cynic in Paradise

Bennett runs the algorithms that launch Israel's most dysfunctional policies - not because he's an extremist, but because he's an incorrigible cynic

Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting in the Knesset on March 25, 2018.
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A synopsis of the farce that is the “agreement” and its cancellation, to paraphrase a barb made famous by Winston Churchill: An empty algorithm stopped at Balfour Street in Jerusalem, and Benjamin Netanyahu, a virtual prime minister, stepped out. A brief brouhaha on his new-media accounts was all it took to shake him to his foundations. But seeing that the makeup of Netanyahu’s character and his dysfunctional bent are known to all, we need not go down that road. Instead, let’s talk about the puppet master, Naftali Bennett, who time after time runs the algorithm (leveraging the abduction-murder of the three teenagers to launch Operation Protective Edge, the Elor Azaria affair, the metal detectors at the Temple Mount, and more).

In private conversations, it’s easy to get to the bottom of Bennett. He’s not really a dazed, messianic, fascist extremist. It’s not clear how religious he is, and he certainly isn’t crazy. To say any of that about him is to err and deceive, to contribute to demonization by the left and a kind of myth-making by the right. A mirror image that in either case aggrandizes Bennett. One needn’t be a psychoanalyst to read him correctly; it’s enough to watch him cheering on the occupation and settlement project from his safe, spacious home in Ra’anana to understand the chasm between the man and his reputation.

The deportation episode supplies additional proof for the most telling characterization of Bennett: He is dangerous. But what makes him dangerous is a single character trait: cynicism. Bennett is genuinely an incorrigible cynic. And he knows it. He has a sense of humor, even self-deprecating humor. In fact, cynicism is also a type of humor, albeit on the bitter, malicious side of the spectrum.

On the national level, however, it’s not at all funny. Bennett functions as Netanyahu’s alter ego. He sees himself as an upgraded version of the prime minister, a next-generation Netanyahu. An officer in an elite unit, charismatic, with highly polished English, good rhetorical skills, catchy messages and cheap populism, all in a shiny, high-tech-entrepreneur package.

His Plan A was to inherit Netanyahu’s mantle by the usual route. He founded an extra-parliamentary movement, headed the Yesha Council of settlements and even found his way into the Prime Minister’s Office, as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. But a plot twist forced him to take a detour, in the form of an impressive takeover of the skeleton company of Habayit Hayehudi.

That success became his trap, his glass ceiling. In his frustration, as his response to the deal canceling the forced expulsion of African refugees proved once more, all Bennett could do was nip at Netanyahu’s heels: “challenge,” “steal the base,” “pass him on the right.” In practice, the only thing he knows how to do is whip up the passions of “the street” using the paper tiger of populism. Today, “the street” is on Facebook and Twitter. His riots are ignited and orchestrated from above.

In the story of the deal and its cancellation, Netanyahu merely illustrated a familiar truth: States tend to choose the right solution only after exhausting all the alternatives. At the end of the day, even if out of lack of choice and in his usual clumsy way, Netanyahu briefly stood up for a plan that was reasonable, balanced, proportionate and humanitarian. Were he a genuine leader, not a virtual one, he would have sold it as such to the nation as it approaches the 70th anniversary of independence, rather than washing his hands of it in panic while attacking the judicial system and the New Israel Fund.

And if Bennett were a concrete alternative, or even just a mensch, he would not have rushed to depict the absorption of 16,000 Africans in distress as “folding,” “capitulation to a campaign of lies” and “turning Israel into an infiltrators’ paradise.” But Bennett, like his partners in this pile-on, the miserable cowards Moshe Kahlon and Gideon Saar, recognizes that Israel has become something else: a cynics’ paradise.