Israeli parents like to ask their children the following question: “would you rather be the head of the foxes or the tail to the lions?” The question is if it is better to lead a group that leaves much to be desired or be barely part of the strongest group.
Most Israeli children answer that they would rather be the worst of the lions. Some are content to be among the greats; others take a more ambitious approach saying, “if I am a lion, I will be able to work my way up to be head of the lions.”
Naftali Bennet has spent time amongst the lions, serving as Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff and later as a Minister in two Netanyahu-led governments. Yet the lions despised him; he reportedly quit his job as chief of staff in 2008 after a falling out with Netanyahu.
In 2013 when Bennett led the Jewish Home, Netanyahu even tried to sit with Labour instead of tolerating Bennett. Ben Caspit, in his book Netanyahu, reports that in the 2015 elections the Likud employed a strategy of cannibalization – attempting to draw support away from other right-wing parties like Bennett’s – to guarantee that the Likud received the mandate to form a government first.
The clawing only continued. In 2018, after Liberman left the coalition, Netanyahu passed up Bennett for Minister of Defence, taking the portfolio for himself instead.
After the first elections in 2019, Bennett’s New Right party narrowly missed the threshold, and Netanyahu fired him from his post as Minister of Education. For a brief time, Netanyahu succeeded in removing Bennett from the government and the Knesset. When no government was formed and the Knesset dissolved, Bennett got another chance.
When new elections were called for September 2019, Bennett took a back seat to let Shaked lead the party. Following a merger with other right-wing factions, the Yemina list got seven seats, but gridlock remained.
After the third election, Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to form an emergency government in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Bennett decided not to join the government. His faction split from the other right-wing parties they joined for the second and third elections, and Bennett quietly took his party into the opposition, leaving the lion’s den.
By leaving the den, Bennett distanced himself from the government’s coronavirus response, which allowed him to compete for right-wing votes of those discontent with Netanyahu’s mismanagement of the crisis. While Gantz and Netanyahu lost seats in the fourth vote, Bennett – now separate from Smotrich – solidified his position as kingmaker with a formidable seat increase.
Now, Bennett has chosen to be the leader of the foxes: a loose coalition bound only by necessity, disdain for Netanyahu, and an impending fifth election. These foxes may not be political royalty like the Netanyahu family, but their ability to band together and alter the status quo left the king of the jungle of Israeli politics without his crown. Despite differing opinions on Bennett, nearly everyone would agree that ambition is not something he lacks.
Through his hard work and political maneuvering, Bennett now has what he lacked earlier: opportunity.
Bennett, as Prime Minister, will be able to lead rather than follow and be heard rather than stifled.
Bennett has the opportunity to work with Yair Lapid, Mansour Abbas and Avigdor Liberman to try to heal divisions between right and left, Jewish and Arab and, as the first observant Prime Minister, between religious and secular.
Bennett has the opportunity to have his innovative ideas (at least the ones palatable to the center-left) considered and implemented. Most of all, Naftali Bennett has the opportunity to leave his mark on Israel and drastically alter the political landscape.
Perhaps Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will teach Israel a lesson: it is better to lead the foxes than be a disrespected and mistreated lion.