Jim Shalom
Jim Shalom

Queen Bee Prime Minister Bennett

Over 100 days have passed since the new Israeli government under Prime Minister Bennett came to power. How easy it is now to forget the political stalemate and the pessimism over prospects of forming a government that bedeviled Israel for over two long years! After four inconclusive elections, no passed budget – and thus no potential for long-term policy planning – there appeared to be no hope of resolving the impasse. In addition, isolated issues appeared to evolve and morph into national crises that engulfed initially unrelated matters. The most notable example is the Sheikh Jarrah controversy, which was followed by a violent and futile clash between Israel and Hamas, from which neither side benefited.

The present government is a political conglomeration patchwork so farfetched and implausible that I doubt any fiction writer would dare present it as a possible scenario. Naftali Bennett, who was offered the chance to serve first as prime minister in a shared arrangement with Yair Lapid, represents a party with only seven seats in the 120-seat assembly. Considered extremely right wing, to the point of being outside the national consensus, he is also Israel’s first ever devoutly religious prime minister. Moreover, given the demanding nature of the job, Bennett, who is 49, and who only appeared on the political scene in 2006, is considered a comparative novice.

Nonetheless, once in office, Bennett managed to transform his perceived weakness into a strength. Unlike Netanyahu, he is not all-powerful. Instead, he has delegated, and has given his cabinet ministers responsibility to pursue the policy they think best. While decisions require his approval, he sees his role primarily as that of an overseer and coordinator. This aspect of the present government is conspicuously different and refreshing. In previous governments Netanyahu was first among equals to an extreme degree – basically all decisions were made by him – while Bennett, in contrast, coordinates and authorizes decisions made by others. Israel, in particular, often is required to face complex political issues simultaneously. If one presumes that delegated responsibility is preferable in such a milieu, then one can conclude that where authoritative leadership is concerned, less is more.

This coalition government is a composite of political, religious, and Arab Jewish opposites: political right and left; religious and secular. Bennett’s and Gideon Saar’s right-wing Jewish nationalist parties find themselves cuddled up together with Mansour Abbas and his nationalist United Arab List. This combination is rendered even more precarious by the fact that, without Abbas’s support, the government could not have been formed, nor could it now be sustained. In other words, right-wing Jewish parochial nationalist parties are dependent on a proud Arab nationalist who has thrown in his lot with right-wing Zionist parties. This incongruous arrangement is an extreme application of the adage that politics makes strange bedfellows. A common determined desire to replace Netanyahu as prime minister appeared to be almost the only unifying factor.

Initially, it seemed as if such a government, united only by a negative anti-Netanyahu platform, could not possibly be stable. The Likud and numerous pundits predicted its imminent collapse. However, as the only predictable aspect of Israeli politics is its unpredictability, reality has laughed in our faces. So far, this government has not only survived but, all things considered, has done remarkably well, and the first important stage of the budget bill passed easily – no simple feat. Moreover, despite the looming presence of many challenging isolated issues, none has degenerated into a national or government crisis.

The embarrassing prison break by six murderous terrorists is one example of a potential catastrophe that was well handled. While responding to fears in the Jewish sector and combing Arab communities to seek out locals who might have helped the fugitives, Israel could have responded very aggressively, and the subsequent Arab reaction could easily have escalated into a scenario similar to that triggered by events in Sheikh Jarrah. However, Public Security Minister Bar-Lev, who refused to be provoked into taking extreme action, handled the problem with remarkable competence and calm, focusing only on what was necessary. As a result, all the escapees were recaptured alive; none were harmed, and no Arab Israelis were identified as accomplices. Unlike previous retaliatory responses, pursuit and capture of the prisoners in this case was carried out in a manner that avoided Israeli Arab or Palestinian humiliation and loss of face. Furthermore – and, perhaps, most importantly – in contrast to the Sheikh Jarrah aftermath, hard though it tried, Hamas was unable to mobilize violent action against Israel’s measured policy of pursuit of the escapees.

The government is handling the COVID pandemic, including the return to school, in a reasonable manner that is certainly no worse than that of most other countries, and its policy is accepted by the majority of the public. The present government decided to open schools on time and has issued a series of social regulations and conditions to be followed. This has required the prime minister, the health minister, and the minister of education, each of whom belongs to a different party with a different ideology, to work together, and they have done so successfully. Cooperation was likewise elicited from the teachers’ union. Where anti-COVID vaccination is concerned, Israel still leads the world: the government has been pushing the third (booster) dose, which over three million Israelis have now received. Although the rate of infection and the number of seriously ill hospitalized patients both remain high, the percentage of those falling ill and dying of COVID is low among those who have received all three doses of the vaccine. Netanyahu, admittedly, got Israel’s vaccine program off to an early and initially successful start, thanks both to his own efforts and to Israel’s centralized health system, but for the most part this was a one-man show. Netanyahu upstaged former health minister Litzman and handled the problem himself – which seems absurd, considering the medical nature of the crisis. Similarly, there was little coordination between the various ministries. In contrast to the present coordinated situation, at that time, there was no consensus among government politicians nor the public.

Hamas continues to provoke Israel by launching incendiary balloons and the occasional rocket towards Israeli communities. Israel’s response has been consistent, and though slightly more aggressive than that of the previous government, it remains measured. Each incident evokes a controlled but damaging reprisal. Stopping these provocations entirely is, unfortunately, well-nigh impossible, in part because Hamas is opposed to calming the situation or even improving the lot of its citizens. Indeed, it has a vested interest in maintaining a flashpoint with Israel. Were the skirmishes with Israel to stop, the people of Gaza would probably turn the spotlight onto the incompetence of the Hamas government, a possibility that frightens and threatens to undermine the Hamas leadership. The absence of Hamas as a negotiating partner was made blatantly clear when the organization obstinately rejected Foreign Minister Lapid’s recent proposal to improve economic conditions in the Gaza Strip. Such an agreement would require Hamas to cooperate with Israel, which it is utterly opposed to doing, even if it could benefit its citizens thereby. To counteract Hamas’ inimical approach, and as part of its policy of damage control vis-à-vis Hamas, Israel is involving regional neighbors. Sympathetic as they are to the plight of the Gaza Palestinians, Egypt and several other Arab states understand and acknowledge Israel’s predicament and are exasperated by Hamas’s destructive behavior.

The new Israeli government has somehow managed to turn even its internal disagreements into an asset. On the Palestinian issue, division within the government reflects the division nationwide: the right-wing parties adamantly oppose pursuing a political peace process with the Palestinian Authority, while the left-wing faction ardently supports a two-state solution. While refusing to do so himself, Bennett prudently (and flexibly, for him) officially consented to allow Defense Minister Gantz meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Given the present coalition government constellation, that was as far as he could go, and farther than he would probably have supported, had he not been prime minister. This is a salient example of intra-government cooperation on a delicate and controversial issue.

While the situation is undoubtedly complex and the causes are innumerable, I believe that the primary reason for the Israeli-Palestinian impasse remains Palestinian unwillingness to conduct genuine negotiations with Israel. There remain fundamental issues on their side essential to resolve beforehand in order to facilitate a peace process. Here are some of the cardinal issues: First, as no one has asked the Palestinians themselves, it is unclear whether the Palestinians consider themselves to be represented by the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) or by Hamas. What value is there to negotiating with the P.A. is there if they are not officially deemed the Palestinian representatives? Second, there has been no delineation of the type of state are they hoping for – democratic or authoritarian. The present corrupt dysfunctional PA is certainly not an effective model to emulate. Third, there has been no official attempt to state what Israeli positions they do agree with. Until now, they have repeatedly rejected Israeli peace proposals without offering an alternative basis for negotiation. Finally, how can they genuinely negotiate with Israel with Hamas, who also declare themselves the Palestinian representatives, calling for Israel’s destruction. Interested parties tend to gloss over and ignore these points of contention so that when the Israeli government refuses to enter into negotiations, it, rather than the Palestinians, appears intransigent. Gantz, by meeting with Abbas, and Bennett, by willingly authorizing their meeting at the risk of undermining his support base, have tossed the ball into the Palestinian court. Israel has left the door to conciliation open. If the Palestinians really do want to facilitate a peace process, rather than continue with posturing and vacuous declarations and / or threats to go to the Hague, in order to proceed forward, they should begin to get their house in order, and have their own internal discussion to address and resolve these issues.

Most of the Israeli cabinet ministers are neophytes. We may assume that the experienced Likud members of Knesset could do a better job.  However, politics can distort mindsets. Even if most Likud ministers were not corrupt, like Netanyahu, many had been entrenched in their high positions for so long that they had lost some of their unselfish drive to serve the people and have instead conflated and confused their own personal political needs with the welfare of Israel. Hubris is a regrettably common trait among seasoned politicians. Replacing the government with a new set of ministers has had the effect of cleaning the Augean stable.

During Netanyahu’s tenure, at best, the various minsters grudgingly cooperated with one another. In contrast, as the above examples illustrate, (so far) Bennett’s government is characterized by cooperation and mutual respect. A personal, high-profile example occurred when Bennett was selected as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. Mansour Abbas, his political antithesis, was asked to comment. His response:

“After four elections in two years, a bold act was needed to unite a country frayed by political stalemate and brought to a desperate standstill. Something dramatic needed to change, but more importantly, someone courageous needed to make that change. Naftali Bennett threw himself into a political firestorm in order to forge previously unimaginable ties between Israel’s left and right, Arabs and Jews, religious and secular. He formed one of the most diverse governments in Israel’s history.”

One must appreciate both Abbas’s courage and magnanimity and the significance and implications of this turnaround. It is yet another example of how times have changed. Just as Bennett has dared to work with Abbas, an approach which is anathema to many of his supporters, so, too, Abbas is willing to cast his lot into actively and non-apologetically working with Jewish Israelis including the right-wing factions. Just a few months ago, the Jewish right wing and Israel’s Arab parties were busy invalidating and nullifying each another and had avoided any formal dialogue whatsoever. As recent as six months ago who could have imagined such poles-apart cooperative interplay could and would transpire?

Once a government has a well-established leader, voters often find it hard to imagine anyone else in his/her place. The current election in Russia is a pertinent example. Many of those weary of Putin’s incompetence and corruption nonetheless cannot envisage a Russian government with a different leader. Similarly, many Israelis, including those who oppose Netanyahu, can still barely imagine Israel’s being run by anyone else, especially a relative newcomer. Nonetheless, when one thinks back to earlier Israeli leaders – Olmert, Sharon, and others – then, too, it was hard at first to imagine them as prime ministers, and equally hard, after they had been in power long enough, to envisage anyone else taking their place. But just as queen bees grow into their role as the hub of the hive, so, too, Bennett has grown into his role as leader, and has been revealed as a quick learner.

With the establishment of the present government, Israel, together with many Arab and Jewish leaders alike, has demonstrated political ingenuity and resourcefulness. Even if Bennett’s government should eventually prove unsustainable, important issues such as tolerance, diversity, inclusivity, and good governance have once again become part of the present Israeli political culture.

About the Author
Jim Shalom is a specialist in family medicine, with interests in end-of-life care and the Israeli political scene. He resides in Galilee. He has spent most of his adult life living and working in Israel. He has studied and extensively followed the Israeli political scene including the Palestinian Israeli conflict.
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