Even before his 100 days of grace come to an end, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has made it into Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2021. Bennett is not the first Israeli premier to make the list, nor the last. What makes this achievement special is the man who wrote the magazine’s tribute to the Israeli leader, Islamist Knesset member Mansour Abbas, whose Ra’am party is the first Arab party to ever participate actively in an Israeli government.
Even if this remains the only achievement of the government that Bennett formed against all odds, it is still a stunning historic event. An Arab-Israeli party has never joined a government coalition in all of Israel’s 73 years. The 21% Arab minority enjoys equal rights de jure, but had been excluded from the center of the political map until three months ago. The exclusion was mutual — Arab political parties were not only boycotted, they also boycotted the predominantly Jewish ones. This is no longer the case.
The credit for this development goes to three people. First and foremost to Mansour Abbas, who has set aside national/nationalistic issues such as the Palestinian issue to devote himself to the matters most important to the daily lives of his constituents. The second person is Bennett, who recognized the historic opportunity facing him and rose to the occasion. The third, paradoxically, is former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the months leading up to the formation of the Bennett government, Netanyahu embarked on a sizzling political affair with Abbas, including four face-to-face meetings at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Netanyahu prepared the hearts and minds of his supporters for the inclusion of an Arab party, and an Islamist one, at that, in a future coalition, but ultimately failed to put it together. Bennett succeeded where Netanyahu failed.
Just six years ago, while serving as minister of education, Bennett asked his driver to stop next to an olive tree near the Israeli-Arab town of Kafr Qasem. He got out of the car, took down some green flags covered in Arabic script that were hanging on the tree and posted a photo of his action on social media. Bennett was hailed as a hero. He had been returning from a condolence call at the West Bank settlement home of an Israeli couple murdered by Hamas in front of their children. Bennett was convinced he was removing Hamas flags from the olive tree, only to find out later that they were in fact the flags of the southern faction of Israel’s Islamist party. In any case, he would never have dreamed that six years on he would be prime minister and the Ra’am party whose flags he had unintentionally removed would be a full-fledged member of his government. In other words, in 2015, Bennett did not know the difference between Hamas and Ra’am. He does now.
His 100 days of grace are almost over. The bottom line is more than positive, but danger still lurks. The government budget has received initial Knesset approval and save for unexpected developments will obtain final approval in November, granting his government almost full political immunity, barring special circumstances. The government is functioning and its ministers generally get along with each other despite the deep ideological rifts among some of them. Bennett has succeeded in rehabilitating Israel’s relations with Jordan and King Abdullah, turning the page in relations with the US administration and the Democratic Party, and even popping over to Egypt to meet with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who accorded him a welcome fit for a king.
On the coronavirus front, Bennett has also chalked up an impressive achievement, despite the less than encouraging morbidity figures, by avoiding a national lockdown during the High Holidays of the Jewish new year at the beginning of September. Last year, Israelis marked Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Succoth under tight curfew. This year, despite doomsday prophecies by Netanyahu and his fans, Bennett decided to let Israelis celebrate freely. He was able to do so by mounting an aggressive campaign designed to convince as many Israelis as possible to get a coronavirus vaccine booster, making Israel a pioneer in this regard and turning COVID-19 largely into an illness of the unvaccinated. However, the daily number of those testing positive for the disease is still very high, as is the number of deaths. If the fourth COVID-19 wave declines in the coming weeks despite the holiday celebrations and start of the school year, and the economy continues its recovery, Bennett will be able to chalk up a major victory.
Now we come to the problems and dangers ahead, with Iran at the forefront. Despite his positive meeting last month with US President Joe Biden, the strategy for dealing with Iran’s continued nuclear ambitions continues to overshadow Israel, in general, and its government in particular. Bennett takes every opportunity to declare his opposition to a US return to the nuclear deal with Iran, while his defense minister, Benny Gantz, told Foreign Policy magazine that he agrees with “the current US approach of putting the Iran nuclear program back in a box.”
Netanyahu continues to bite Bennett on this issue, accusing him of a conciliatory approach that could enable Iran to reach nuclear capability. The fact that under Netanyahu Iran came as close as it has ever been to nuclear breakout does not confuse Netanyahu or deter the harsh rhetoric of his allies. Bennett is at his wits end.
The Gaza Strip poses a similar, albeit more tangible threat. A clash with Hamas could destabilize the Bennett government given the membership of Ra’am, which theoretically at least is ideologically affiliated with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. In interviews he gave marking the Jewish New Year, Bennett was asked whether he would risk a military offensive against Hamas despite his fragile government coalition. He answered in the affirmative. The only considerations guiding us are security considerations, he told his interviewers. Asked how he would deal with the potential political fallout, he answered simply that the government will handle it.
Bennett has been in office almost 100 days but he has not yet grown into his new job, and that might be the greatest threat hovering over his head. Israelis for the most part do not see him as a leader but rather as a hired manager, perhaps even a temporary one, a type of stand-in for a real prime minister. Bennett has not yet reached the pinnacle from which Netanyahu governed for the past 12 years and 11 other premiers did before him. He is yet to be perceived as a national leader. The hate campaign against him on social media, mounted by Netanyahu acolytes, continues to impact public opinion. They call him “a con man” and “a charlatan,” and accuse him of stealing the premiership from voters and blackmailing his Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid in order to topple Netanyahu.
To shake this monkey of hate off his shoulder, Bennett needs something else to help him climb to the top. This component has yet to emerge. The question is what will come first — his step up or a disaster that destabilizes the coalition and ends Naftali Bennett’s dreams far sooner than planned.