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Bennett clings to political survival

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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s reputation is as divided among Israelis today as it was a year ago when he scraped together a surprising government coalition.

Winning only seven (which soon became six) seats in the 2021 election, the right-wing Zionist leader cobbled together a cross-partisan alliance of right-wing, centrist, and leftist parties. It included Islamists representing Israel’s 21% Arab minority, many of whom identify with the Palestinians.

The new coalition partners had very little in common other than an overpowering urgency that “anyone but Bibi” (Benjamin Netanyahu) should run the country.

Things haven’t changed much 365 days later. The refrain is the basic strain that holds Bennett’s tenuous government together. Predictions that it won’t survive are as rife now as they were when former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was ousted from a record 12-year reign.

One of the few things Israelis agree on is surprise that Bennett lasted this long and conviction that his time is running out. His coalition is in fact weaker today than it was last June, and controls only 60 out of 120 seats in parliament after a legislator from his own party quit in April citing sectarian disputes. This has left Bennett vulnerable to no-confidence motions and having to rely on disarray among the opposition to survive.

According to a recent opinion poll, if elections were held today in Israel, Netanyahu would win 59 parliamentary seats compared to Bennett’s 55. What’s more, 46% of Israelis believe that Netanyahu is best suited to be prime minister, whereas only 21% favour Bennett.

Many within his traditional right-wing support base felt, and continue to feel, betrayed by his move to join centrists and leftists. A common belief is that he saw this as his best chance to become prime minister, and hoped he would impress detractors enough to be revoted into power. Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t happened.

Marking the one-year anniversary, Bennett published last Friday an unusual open letter to the Israeli public in which he called for support for the sake of stability and a properly functioning government. He wrote that Israelis must choose between moving forward or collapsing. Justifying his coalition, he penned, “We stood just days away from a fifth election cycle that would have taken the country apart and then I made one of the most difficult and most Zionist decisions of my life: to establish a government to save Israel from the chaos and have it function again. To connect to people with different opinions than my own to save the country.”

From the start, Bennett framed his coalition as bringing political stability to Israel after an unprecedented series of inconclusive elections. But his letter highlighted his fear of a coalition breakdown and the spectre of more elections and a challenge from Netanyahu, all looming large on the horizon. Netanyahu has repeatedly lashed out at Bennett for working with the Islamist party, Ra’am, claiming that it supports terror while conveniently forgetting that he himself was widely reported to have sought an alliance with it a year ago.

Bennett’s governing coalition has lurched from one crisis to another. The most recent was its failure to muster a majority to renew legislation extending Israeli law to citizens living in the West Bank for another five years. If the regulations aren’t renewed by the end of this month, they will lapse, depriving settlers of voting rights, professional licenses, and the protection of Israeli criminal law. As the regulations are vital to the daily routine of settlers in the West Bank, supporting them is considered a right-wing agenda. Their failure means Bennett has let down his ideological base, while the Islamist Ra’am party will never be able to support Israel’s policy in the West Bank. This is the eternal coalition infighting that Bennett cannot escape.

Other crises have included reports of extravagant expenditure at his private home in Ra’anana that functions informally as his official residence, and a payment of 50 billion shekels (R230.5 billion) to Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas to invest in Arab society. The prime minister has been trying to stave off a new nuclear deal with Iran and claims victory because it hasn’t happened. But it’s too early to celebrate. Talks with Iran are paused, not abandoned. Bennett’s also tried to discourage Washington from placing a consulate for the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Jerusalem, which could have reopened the conversation about re-dividing the capital. The issue remains up in the air, with a Biden administration enthusiastic about improving relations with the PA.

A fair amount of the last year saw Bennett also battling the international COVID-19 pandemic. A feather in his cap is that Israel has managed to ease almost all restrictions, allowing the economy and society to return to normal while facilitating a boom in tourism.

Bennett’s anniversary comes at an important diplomatic juncture. He’s due to host American president Joe Biden soon – perhaps later this month – to strategise on Iran and discuss a possible warming of Israel’s ties with Saudi Arabia. This would be a huge achievement for Bennett but arises more from an American thirst for Saudi oil as a result of global sanctions on Russia than any concern for Israel’s security issues.

Bennett and his top cabinet ministers have made an effort to get along with the Arab world and have met often with Egyptian President Fattah al-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah. The government recruited President Yitzhak Herzog, a seasoned and polished diplomat, to reset relations with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, which remain challenging at best. Erdogan’s goal is widely believed to show the Muslim world that he still has a voice in Jerusalem, and there’s little doubt that he’ll use every opportunity to condemn Israel for real and imagined sins.

Historically, Israeli governments have lasted an average of about two-and-a-half years, so at the one-year juncture it might be a little too soon to determine how Bennett’s reign as prime minister will go down in history books. Perhaps his biggest achievement so far is simply having survived.

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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