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Prime Minister Bennet Leads a Complex Political Shift In Israel, Here’s Why

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By Eduardo Zalovich *

The opposition parties sat on the backbenches of the Knesset and refused to be silent. Prime Minister Bennett kept his composure and had a smart retort, telling them that “the tone of your shouting is as loud as your failure.”

On the other hand, Netanyahu also received his share of interruptions, but his speech was much harsher and included a promise to attempt the early collapse of the government. There was no sign of goodwill. The new coalition is not going to receive any grace period to prove itself.

These facts revealed that it was indeed time for a change. As Lapid said, their behavior was a reminder of why a renewal was so important. No one can objectively deny the enormous development of the country, its strengthening and new alliances with Arab nations during the Netanyahu era. He deserves great credit for that, but the tenure was seriously affecting his behavior. Israelis, who love the democratic system, are instead willing to give the brand new team a chance to prove its effectiveness, according to all polls.

After the vote and the gala ceremony at the Presidential Residence, the new ministers took office. Eight parties make up the coalition, which will be headed for two years by Naftali Bennett and for the next two years by Yair Lapid, who took over as Chancellor.

Bennett’s Yemina (“Right”) party has six deputies, is nationalist, economically liberal and “hawkish” on security issues. It intends to annex area C of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), which the Oslo Accords left under full Israeli control. Areas A and B of this region are de facto governed by the Palestinian Authority presided over by Abu Mazen — Arafat’s successor — from Ramallah, while Gaza is the fiefdom of the Hamas terrorist group.

Bennet supported with reservations the last peace agreement presented by Washington–the best in history–and if direct negotiations are resumed, he could be more pragmatic. Of course, for this to happen, the Palestinian dictatorship would have to stop inciting violence and stop financing the families of imprisoned terrorists.

The other members of the new government are Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid (17 legislators), Tikvah Hadasha (conservative nationalist, six), Israel Beiteinu (secular right, seven), Kachol Lavan (center, eight), Avodah (the historic Labor of Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, seven), Meretz (socialist, six) and Raam. The latter, with four seats, is a Muslim party and is joining an Israeli government for the first time in history. Never before has the nation been led by such a heterogeneous force.

The unifying element was the conviction that the cycle of Bibi, whose maneuvers and broken promises bitterly pitted him against his former allies, had to end. A personal issue, a lack of trust in his word, was stronger than ideological affinities.

Naftali Bennet, 49, was born in Haifa and was part of the elite military unit Sayeret Mankal, studied law and created a technology company, sold it and made him rich. He represents the image of the ideal self-made achiever. He then entered politics and defines himself as a Zionist, the same as the entire Israeli population, and modernly religious, in contrast to the two “Haredim” (ultra-Orthodox) parties whose life is far removed from modern Israel. For a long time, he worked alongside Netanyahu, until they broke up in 2008.

With only six seats to his party’s credit, he has now managed to place himself on the balance of power as an indispensable arbiter. He was courted by both Netanyahu and opposition leader Yair Lapid. Both offered him to jointly lead the government through a pact of rotation in office, but the latter was more generous in giving him the first turn. Lapid inspired more confidence in him than Bibi, known for reneging on several agreements with his partners.

In today’s polarized society, Bennett presents himself as a reunifying leader. At the same time, his inauguration marks a generational changeover in power, along with his ally Lapid. Both lived through the youth after the Six-Day War, which defined Israeli military superiority in 1967, and saw the state become an economic and technological power. He symbolizes the plurality of contemporary Israel, as a modern Orthodox Jew open to dialogue. The secular centrist Lapid is the true father of the “government of change”.

Bennett managed to go beyond the image of a national-religious leader and transcend religious politics to reach out to secular and centrist voters. When he was education minister he launched a flagship program to encourage high school students to major in math and physics, arguing how important it was for Israel and how the education system was the engine of the nation’s high-tech industry. Significantly, he supported the plan to open a section of the Western Wall for egalitarian, conservative and reformist prayers.

The plan was shelved due to Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) pressure, but Bennett’s religious moderation was clear. His passion for improving the Israeli public image was also something he discussed with close associates, considering establishing an NGO to lead the efforts. During the coronavirus crisis, he spearheaded efforts to try to get the government to transfer responsibility for managing the pandemic to the IDF (Israeli Army). While others were slow to react, Bennett got to work. He had the IDF supply technology and research to the health system, initiated the use of hotels as sanatoriums for patients, and fought for the creation of a national diagnostic center that would perform 100,000 checkups a day. It was a show of ingenuity at a time when many were still confused.

Ahead of the March 2021 elections, Bennett refused to declare which side he belonged to, the pro-Netanyahu camp or the anti-Netanyahu camp, leaving open the possibility of doing what he concretized, joining Lapid and other opposition parties. He will now oversee a coalition that is difficult to manage and ideologically divided. However, the government has clear objectives: to pass a two-year budget, provide the ministries with the tools they need and create peace of mind.

While Israel has been recovering from the consequences of the pandemic, there is no shortage of urgent issues that require attention, from the situation on the borders with Gaza and Hezbollah, which dominates southern Lebanon, to the Iranian threat. The latter is the biggest challenge, and Israel has pledged to prevent the theocratic dictatorship in Tehran from possessing atomic weapons. Even if the powers sign a new agreement with Iran, Jerusalem has made it clear that it is not a party to it. The memory of Chamberlain naively trying to appease Hitler is very present in Jewish memory, and Biden’s attempts to return to the agreement are perceived as very dangerous.

Yair Lapid, who took over as foreign minister, has long prepared for the position. He comes in with experience, contacts and plans to revamp Israeli diplomacy. In particular, he clearly has a strong desire to strengthen the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and its public standing. Other Yesh Atid members have been acting toward this goal, establishing a group in the Knesset to strengthen the Foreign Service, moving to pass a Foreign Service Law.

The coalition will attempt to make progress on a number of urgent objectives: rebuilding trust with Jordan, restoring bipartisan American support for Israel — threatened by the left-wing of the Democratic Party — strengthening regional cooperation, and improving the difficult relationship with Europe. While a peace agreement with the Palestinians is difficult to achieve, given the radical demands they make, it could strengthen the moderate elements among them, better positioning Israel in the region and the world.

Eduardo Zalovich is a historian who lives in Israel.

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