From ‘brother’ to ‘cousin’: Naftali Bennett’s political future at stake?

Trade Minister Naftali Bennett has never shied away from making clear his disdain for American Secretary of State Kerry’s peace initiative, declaring his plans to act, along with the right flank of the Likud, as a block against any Israeli concessions. In anticipation of the Davos summit, Israeli business leaders aired their fears of a possible economic boycott, only to be rebuffed by Bennett’s insistence that any sanctions aimed at the State of Israel pale in comparison to missiles from a Palestinian state that will be aimed at affluent neighborhoods in Tel Aviv or Herziliya. Most recently he, along with various right-wing ministers, has railed against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s suggestion that settlers be allowed to live in a Palestinian state, claiming that such statements undermine the very notion of Jewish sovereignty, and now awaits reprimand from the Prime Minister himself.

Such comments are hardly new, nor are they surprising; indeed, Bennett has based his popularity on thumbing his nose at the diplomatic process and obliviously calling for an annexation of large parts of the West Bank, delivering such messages in a highly sophisticated and confident manner. One could forgive Bennett, or anyone for that matter, for viewing the current batch of negotiations as an unmitigated failure; Prime Minister Netanyahu seems either incapable or unwilling to make the far-reaching concessions necessary, scaling back Ehud Olmert’s generous offer in 2008, refusing (in public at least) to cede East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, and standing firm regarding the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Worse still, he seems determined to keep his coalition intact, kowtowing to the most right wing fringe of his allies, perpetuating a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ situation in which every concession made to the Palestinian Authority is met with the promise of even more building beyond the Green Line.

One might then interpret the latest slew in Knesset legislation-bills threatening to annex the Jordan Valley, making concessions on Jerusalem dependent on a Knesset super majority-as well as angry declarations by Bennett, and Likudniks like Miri Regev and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon as a sign of the right’s victory over Kerry’s initiative and of Netanyahu’s total surrender to the far-right. If one were a pessimist (which I grant, is understandably the default mood when discussing this particular topic), then these latest events would simply verify what is already known.

But, as J.J. Goldberg and a number of others have recently argued, what if the opposite were true? What if these statements and actions by the right were simply a frenzied and worried reaction to a creeping suspicion that Bibi might not be in their pocket? Many rightist MKs have already stated that the Prime Minister has no majority in the coalition, nor even in his party to agree to any deal remotely close to what the US is proposing. Bennett in particular has made it clear that, should Bibi even think about signing a deal, Habayit Heyhudi will promptly leave the coalition, causing the government to collapse. The former has, after all, made this a cornerstone of his policy, justifying his presence in the coalition despite ongoing talks by stating that he is not opposed to talks per se, but rather to what they may lead to.

In reality, however, Bennett’s future in the coalition is far from certain. His unlikely ‘merger’ with Finance Minister Yair Lapid has a hit a snag recently, the latter demoting Bennett from ‘brother’ to ‘cousin’. Lapid’s party Yesh Atid has, as of late, begun to emphasize the need for a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians much more aggressively than in the past, with Lapid recently stating that if progress was not made in the talks, his party might have to leave the government. Whether this new-found emphasis is in part to staunch the bleeding away of mandates that Yesh Atid may lose in future elections according to recent polls, or a genuine fear for the future are unclear. The Lapid-Bennett union was uncomfortable from the very start; one cannot help but wonder how voters of a centrist party that believes firmly in a two-state solution feel about their candidate cozying up to a party which counts among its ranks a number of far-right settlers (one of which recently praised the passing of former Prime Minister Sharon), openly scoffs at the very notion of a Palestinian state, and that has tabled numerous blatantly anti-democratic laws under the guise of protecting democracy. Bennett may have succeeded in deluding a number of center and even left-leaning Israelis to vote for him last year by running a slick campaign that highlighted his economic prowess, while simultaneously keeping his more radical party members out of the media’s glare. Lightening is unlikely to strike twice, and given his latest comments, those who were unsure about Bennett’s radical right, settler friendly credentials are unlikely to need any more convincing.

With the ascendency of Bujie Herzog to its Chair, the Labor Party has once again taken on the mantle of making the diplomatic process a priority. While former (and recently replaced) Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich had offered tepid support, Herzog has said numerous times since the recent start of his tenure that if the Prime Minister is serious about cutting a peace deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Labor will act as the ‘safety net’ for him if the far right does indeed quit the coalition. If such a scenario were to arise, Bennett would be hard pressed to do anything but pull out in haste; he has staked a large chunk of his reputation in making sure that no peace agreement is passed under his watch. Yet those on the left who have criticized the likes of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni for joining up with Netanyahu (especially given the venom between them) may be viewing things in a shortsighted manner. Namely, that Livni and Bennett have joined up with Netanyahu for the sake of political survival, and to avoid the wilderness of the opposition. There is no doubt, of course, that with her six mandates and flagging reputation, such a fate would hurt Livni far more than a fresh-faced Bennett. Thus, she has staked her career on heading a peace process with the hope that even if she fails, she will be able to give something back to her constituents. But at the moment, the ranks of the opposition look far more accommodating to Hatnua, made up as it is of center-left, left-wing, Haredi, and Arab parties, than to the far-right Habayit Hayehudi.

If such a scenario were to arise, with Labor suddenly joining the government, Bennett would have no choice but to make a quick exit or risk alienating the core of constituents who could easily turn back to the Likud for succor. Bennett would then find himself the largest party in an opposition, which, from the either side of the political spectrum despises him. The Arab and left-leaning parties rightly view Bennett and his supporters as racists and would-be-autocrats who have little regard for minority rights, democracy, and Israel’s standing in the world.  But the greatest rancor may come from those closest to Bennett in political outlook, namely the Haredi parties who have, for the first time in many years, been left out in the political cold. Bennett’s union with Lapid was based largely on a meeting of the minds regarding the place of Haredim, greatly emphasizing the need to integrate the latter, by coercion if necessary, more deeply into mainstream Israeli society. The religious parties will not so easily forgive or forget Bennett’s support of the drafting of Haredim into the IDF, especially when done in conjunction with a man like Lapid who has been vilified (along with his father Tommy Lapid’s political party, Shinuni) as being a hater of all things religious. To a number of the ultra-Orthodox, Bennett‘s insistence on pressing for draft reform reveals him to be nothing more than a secular Israeli with a thin religious veneer. In the past, Lapid might have been more inclined to stand by his former ‘brother’ in the face of Bennett’s possible exit from the coalition; though, given Yesh Atid’s new found enthusiasm for the peace process and a desire to permanently separate from the Palestinians, this seems less and less likely the case. The bad blood that now separates the two former allies was evident days ago when Bennett lashed out at both Lapid and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, chiding the undemocratic nature of their political parties. Nor would Bennett find common cause with the religious right in regards to his and his party’s views on the peaces process; with the return of Aryeh Deri to the ranks of Shas, the party has re-embraced (if not fully) the center-left’s views, and would be hard pressed to support Bennett’s hardline.  

Perhaps, most tellingly, were recent reports by the Social Guard claiming that the majority of legislation lives or dies at the behest of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, and that a whopping 74% of coalition-sponsored draft laws were approved, compared to 15% of those submitted by those sitting in the opposition. With few allies with which to surround himself, and little power with which to push forward legislation, Bennett may soon become relegated to a political life of crowing at Bibi and co, claiming that he and he alone represents the true right of Israel, all the while losing seats to the likes of Likud or Yisrael Beiteinu, who had the foresight not to abandon their positions of power.

Which is to say that none of this may actually come to fruition; Netanyahu may very well reject Kerry’s overtures, leaving the coalition firmly in place (although the fate of more center and center-left parties in such a scenario is also difficult to predict).  And one could argue, as many have in the recent past, that many Likudniks would simply jump ship and abandon Netanyahu. This scenario, while often embraced as the most likely, is in itself problematic, as overtures by Bennett to Likud MKs have recently been rebuffed. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, recent polls point to the fact that while the Likud may have increased in strength, much of that appeal is not due to any love for the party, but rather because of Netanyahu’s leadership. Simply put, the Likud cannot afford to lose the meal ticket that is Bibi without being exposed as having transformed into a radically right wing party (an issue to be discussed in forthcoming posts).

Bennett’s seat at the table is probably assured for the time being, but behind the constant smirking and naysaying regarding the peace process, he must seriously take into the account the ramifications that a real peace deal will have on the future of his party, and most importantly, his political career.

About the Author
Guy Frenkel is a New York-based American-Israeli peace activist, currently with the Blue White Future movement, as well as a number of other Israeli organizations working towards a two-state solution. All opinions expressed here are his alone.