What happened to Naftali Bennett? I think I might know
Just a year ago, his non-negotiable position for creating a historic government was that he become Prime Minister. Today, he wants nothing to do with political life. I can imagine why.
Naftali Bennett had been planning for this moment his entire political career. All he ever wanted was to become Prime Minister. And now, after the fourth national election in 2021, he had finally discovered the magical formula to remove Bibi Netanyahu from the seat of Prime Minister and install himself in there instead. All he had to do was create a coalition with the anyone-but-Bibi crowd, and he was in. Victory!
He did it. Not without some pain, struggle, and arm twisting — for himself and for the rest of us. First, we had to go through four election cycles in just over a year, which wore the country out politically, emotionally, spiritually, and economically. We were all at a point of desperation. We were all like, just form a government, any government. So he did that.
More challenging, though, he had to be willing to sit with his sworn enemies in government — that is, Arabs and liberals, what has been a no-no in his world for at least a generation. It’s not clear who made him grimace more, sitting with Arabs or sitting with leftists.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair. While Bennett’s right-wing Religious Zionist camp overall hates liberals and leftists and equates them with Satan and at times does not hold back with their death-wishes for Israeli bleeding hearts, Bennett himself sometimes comes across as more moderate on certain social issues. He is supportive of the LGBTQ community, of women’s inclusion to a degree, and of religious pluralism in certain contexts. While he is completely uncompromising on the Zionist narrative, on a militaristic approach to the conflict, and on the classic gaslighting approach towards Palestinians — and famously ran on the “Never apologize” campaign, which tells us everything we need to know about how he feels on the subject — he did not show that same rigidity on other societal issues. To wit, he took a great risk when, as the first religious Prime Minister, he flew in an airplane on Shabbat to Moscow at the beginning of the Ukrainian war to try and procure a cease fire. (He failed.) Although I am overall not impressed with Israel’s approach to Russia, I was impressed with Bennet’s willingness to bend the religious rules for the sake of trying to end that war.
In any case, no matter what his approach has been on trivial issues like gender equality, his main challenge to getting and staying in power was, at least in theory, sitting in a coalition with the Arab parties.
But he did it. He swallowed hard, and he did it.
But as it turns out, sitting with Arab parties was not his biggest challenge.
His biggest challenge was his own people. He could not get them to line up behind him.
The Arab parties for the most part supported him, and supported the coalition. They did not force their agenda on the coalition — a position that has cost them support among their own voters, who at the beginning celebrated the historic first of having Arab parties in the coalition, and now see their representatives as weak and wonder what’s the point of being the government if they’re not willing to stand up for what they believe in. The Arab leaders made their choices and their sacrifices. When one of their MKs went rogue, she was reprimanded and called to order, and likely destroyed her political future. The Arab parties held their fire as legislators in order to protect the coalition and avoid the risk of another right wing Bibi-led government and all the devastation that it brings. They were all in.
But Bennett’s party was not.
The religious Zionist politicians were relentless. From inside and from out.
The MKs from his own camp incessantly undermined Bennett and the entire government agenda, and created a rebellion from within.
Bennett’s party’s MKs were unwilling to get behind even the simplest things, like abiding by the Supreme Court mandate that bars security guards from checking for chametz in people’s bags on Passover. I mean, this should have been a no-brainer. The Health Ministry was against checking people’s bags for chametz. (People in hospitals have lots of special food needs, so leave them alone.) Rabbis were against checking people’s bags. (It is halakhically unnecessary). The legal system was against it. (It violates the Supreme Court.) Anti-terror strategists were against it. (Guards should be checking for weapons, not pitot.) Advocates for religious freedom were against it. (A third of the country is not Jewish, and they have rights to eat what they want and carry their own food in their personal bags, as do non-practicing Jews.) This should have been a non-issue.
And yet, well….
We all watched the completely embarrassing spectacle of the underwhelming, small-minded, and disappointing Speaker of the Knesset, Idit Silman turn this issue into into her cause celebre. “People in the Holocaust did not eat bread on Pesach, and neither will the state of Israel,” she said, adding that “Jews are the majority in Israel, and so tough luck to everyone else,” with zero self-consciousness about invoking the Holocaust for the sake of religious repression. Nor did she express any kind of remorse about using hospitals, of all things, and the people visiting their sick loved ones as political tools to bring down the government. She’s clearly not the sharpest tool in the shed. (Which brings extra pain to those of us who have been fighting for women’s advancement in politics.) But it was effective. The event eventually led to the big religious Zionist mutiny, the fall of Bennet’s coalition, and now the fifth election in two years.
So here we are.
Even inside his own office, Bennett lost support from those who should have been his strongest loyalists. After a string of resignations, his chief of staff came out with a tell-all interview in Ynet last week in which she basically said that nobody in the PMs office supported Bennett working with Arabs. The whole premise was too compromising for all of them, apparently.
It wasn’t the Arab parties, then, that brought down the government. It was the religious Zionist camp. Whose guy was Prime Minister. Whose guy went all out to make himself Prime Minister. With only seven mandates, he sat down at the negotiation table and said, “Either I’m PM, or I’m out.”
Think about that for a second. Yair Lapid, with the largest bloc of 17 seats, should have been the one to say, “I will be PM no matter what.” But he didn’t. He said, “I don’t care about my position. It’s not about me. It’s about creating a functioning, humane government.” Merav Michaeli, with her seven Labor seats, could have done the exact same thing as Bennett. But she didn’t. She took a second-tier position of Transport Minister and didn’t even insist on getting things that should have been important, like Minister for Gender and Social Equality.
Everyone else around the table said, We need to get this done. Not Bennett. He was the only one who said, Only if I am at the head.
He did that. For himself. For his camp. For his power. Whatever. He did it.
And his own people were the least excited about it. They were the least impressed. Pppfffffftttt…….
So apparently Bennett is now having some kind of personal crisis, or a reckoning. He has announced that he is taking a break from politics. He is also taking a break from public appearances, and had to be convinced to show up at the tarmac for five minutes to meet President Biden. He would not take any meetings. He won’t take media interviews. He apparently refused Lapid’s offer to be Foreign Minister. He is done.
Well, it seems obvious to me.
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I think that the reason Bennett is in crisis is this: He just experienced some serious betrayal. From his own people.
Et tu, Brute?
His people were not who he thought they were. He thought they would line up behind him. They didn’t.
He thought they would understand the need for tough choices in order to make the essential political change and bring themselves into power. He did all that. He made the choices and got himself the highest seat in the country. They weren’t impressed. All his work, for nothing.
He assumed there might be something like loyalty. Politicians spend their entire careers building loyalty. Some do terrible things in order to get that loyalty. Bennett clearly failed in that — perhaps to his credit. Insistence on loyalty is a tactic of narcissistic tyrants. Maybe he tried. Maybe he thought he had it. But he didn’t. That’s tough.
He finally gets to the top of his game, and his people abandon him. That’s some twisted betrayal. It can be very painful.
I am not a Bennett fan by any means. I find his views on the Palestinians appalling, and his “never apologize” attitude a reflection of the toxic masculinity that is destroying our society.
But I do feel like, right now, I can feel his pain. What he went through is not easy, and I can understand why he would want to take a step back and not talk to anyone for a while.
The question is, what will come from this experience? Sometimes when we go through deep moments of crisis, we start to question things that we thought we knew to be true. The world around us suddenly seems chaotic, and we have a need to realign and establish new truths and understandings.
Will Bennett do this?
Because there is a basic truth that may have been upended by this entire episode. That is, he has built his entire career and life based on the idea that Palestinians are the enemy. Religious Zionists are his people, and the Palestinians are his enemy.
And maybe the exact opposite is true.
Maybe the Palestinians are human beings just like he is, people who just want to live a good life with freedom and rights and the ability to move and work freely as citizens of their country. And maybe some of the people in his own camp are the enemies of things like truth, decency, and humanity.
I’ve been where Bennett is. Well, not literally. I’ve never been Prime Minister. But I have made some major transitions in my political thinking following some difficult things, that I wrote about here.
I grew up believing that Palestinians were the enemy, that all Palestinians are violent and hate Jews, and that our job is to do whatever we have to in order to defend ourselves from them and keep Israel completely Jewish. I was brought up on all that dehumanization, and I also built a life based on some of those ideas, and it took me some real crises and some time to let go of ideas that were not helpful and start to think for myself and talk back to my culture. It’s not a simple or easy process but I’ve been there.
More than that, I have been in a place where everything I thought I knew to be true wasn’t. Where the people who I thought were my people, the ones supposed to love and support me, were not.
Where I discovered that everything I thought I knew to be true is a lie.
There are a lot of narratives that we tell ourselves in order to justify our lives, or our leaders’ political decisions, that are not true. I have a long list of tropes that I’ve had to undo and unravel in my life:
That America is the best country in the world.
That women are natural-born nurturers.
That teachers, rabbis, and therapists can be counted on to have your best interests at heart.
That your family will always support you.
That the person who wins is obviously the best.
That the one who got the promotion, raise, big fee, media attention, book contract, exhibition, concert, speaking tour, or awesome gig was obviously the most deserving.
That the Torah is a wonderful moral guidebook.
That halakha is somehow God’s will.
That Jews are Special.
That the IDF is the most moral army in the world.
That justice, humanity, and morality will ultimately win if enough people are committed to it and speak up about it….
Those are some of mine. What are yours?
If we’re lucky, Bennett will come out of this with new understandings about who is right, who is wrong, and what makes us worthy human beings. Maybe. I can only hope.
Either way, maybe it’s up to the rest of us to do the work.
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