How Naftali Bennett spun his way to the Israel crown

Any Italian reading this would have to forgive me for what I am about to say, but from this week on and until its political demise, Israel will have an “Italian government”. For the first time in its history, Israel will have a government in which the PM is not the leader of the largest party and/or political bloc, but rather the leader of a smaller party being appointed by a coalition, to rule on their behalf.

Naftali Bennett’s path to the top was a slippery one and in the past few months filled with deceptions. Though he began on the right wing of Israeli politics, Bennett has seemingly chosen to cross the line to the political centre. Whether he planned this from the very start of his career or at the height of his party’s rise in the polls is unknown and yet to be seen.

He began in Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, way back in 2006 when “Bibi” was the leader of a beaten down Likud party, and headed the opposition to Ehud Olmert’s government. Bennett and his close partner, Ayelet Shaked, were picked by Netanyahu from the tech sector, and quickly turned his office in to a slick organisation, that coordinated protests of reservists from the 2nd Lebanon war against the government.

But in 2008 the three fell out, and Shaked and Bennett were sacked from Netanyahu’s office. They then joined several political NGOs, chief amongst them was “Yesha council”, which coordinates the local councils and cities in the West Bank. Bennett rose quickly as its CEO and in late 2012, ahead of the general election took over the then beaten “Jewish Home” party, which represents religious Jews and, at the time, was also considered the party of settlers.

In the 2013 election, the party was a smashing success, getting 12 seats in the Knesset, and joining Netanyahu’s third cabinet. Throughout that time, Bennett challenged Netanyahu from the right, and their bitter relationship became even more sour. In 2015, Bennett’s party was set to make even greater gains, as many as 17 seats, but a last minute scaremongering  “gevald” campaign by Netanyahu, slashed its result down to just eight seats.

In the 2015 cabinet, Bennett served as Minister of Education, and Shaked as Minister of Justice, but all throughout the tenure, Bennett eyed the Ministry of Defence, the office that is traditionally considered the “king maker” in Israeli politics. In late 2018, Bennett gave an ultimatum to Netanyahu, following the resignation of then defence minister Avigdor Liberman: either make me defence minister, or I will bring down the government. Netanyahu refused, using Bennett’s own party authority, influential rabbis, to undermine Bennett’s threat. Shortly after, Israel went to what would be the first out of four elections, in what would be known as “the tangle”.

Bennett and Shaked then left the Jewish Home party, to found a party of their own – “the New Right”. It started with 14 seats in the polls, but as the election continued, they slipped back towards the threshold of 3.25 per cent of the votes. When the exit polls were revealed, it turned out that Bennett’s party failed to enter the next Knesset. But then, Israel almost immediately went to another election, following Avigdor Liberman’s refusal to join a coalition with the ultra-orthodox parties. This time, Bennett and Shaked formed the party group “Yemina” (“rightward”) with Jewish Home and the United Right. This grouping won seven seats, only to break up 10 minutes after the exit polls.

Later, Netanyahu finally made Bennett defence minister, in order to prevent Bennett potentially siding with his enemies. When Covid-19 struck, Bennett organised the military response and aid, and in the talks to form a government after a third election, he demanded the position of health minister, but was refused. He went into opposition, where he excelled in criticising the government’s handling of the pandemic, and even published a book titled “How to beat a pandemic”. At its height, Bennett’s party rose to 23 seats in the polls, and he was talked about as Netanyahu’s next main election rival. However, when Israel went to its fourth election, Bennett was not the top candidate. The vaccine campaign, and a split in Netanyahu’s party, put Bennett in fourth place at the start of the election. He ended it with seven seats, again.

But here things get tricky: at the height of his popularity, Bennett swore to form a government with anyone, including the Left. He himself criticised Netanyahu repeatedly for making coalitions with left-wing parties, and now, declared he would even sit with Israel’s far left party, Meretz. The election in 2021 gave the right-wing parties 65 seats, a clear majority, including Bennett and Netanyahu’s rival, Gidon Saar, who had split from Likud.

Bennett claimed that he can be counted in the right-wing bloc, but following secret talks, Bennett instead formed a coalition with the left wing bloc, Gidon Saar’s party, and an Arab party, behind the back of everyone. To do so, he has abandoned every value he has ever trumpeted: legal system reform, strict enforcement of law in Israel’s south, free market ideas such like aiding small businesses, and protection of settlements. All to become prime minister. In doing so, Bennett has abandoned his own voters.

He did so, not only in secret but also under fire, as rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, and Arab-Israelis rioted in several cities. At the start of the conflict, Bennett declared that “the cabinet of change” is no longer a topic – only to continue the talks with the Left in secret. The deal is simple: he will be PM for two years, as leader of a party with only six other members in the Knesset, and after two years, the leader of the centre-left bloc and the largest centre-left party, Yair Lapid will “rotate” with Bennett and become prime minister.

Bennett has crossed the political Rubicon to be PM. He has abandoned every value he ever supported, to get the top job. Since March 23rd this year, he has broken every promise and alienated as many as 75 per cent of his supporters. He was a dominant media personality, to whom the soundbite was all. Now, he seeks to spin his way back into legitimacy, going so far as to say that the government he formed, with far-left parties, is “10 degrees more to the right than the current cabinet”. Bennett has been spinning his way to the top ever since he entered politics, and this is the greatest spin of all. Its outcome is yet to be seen.

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