Elections in Israel

12.25.12

Bibi and Bennett Break Up?

Last week Jonathan Tobin wrote a piece in Commentary explaining the rise of Israel’s right. He focused on Jewish Home, the religious Zionist party set to become the third largest party in the Knesset, and its leader Naftali Bennett. After listing Bennett’s “advantages” (including being “savvy”), Tobin assumed that Bennett, because he was in a powerful position, would be brought into the next government coalition and “demand and get” a Cabinet position.

The problem with Tobin’s assumption about Bennett is just that—it’s an assumption. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite of what Tobin concluded. There’s every reason to believe that its Bennett’s very strength that will make Bibi nervous and therefore just as likely to exclude Bennett from any coalition. Tobin neglects to mention, for instance, that Netanyahu and Bennett had a major falling out a few years ago, and only recently started speaking again. It’s not clear their personal relationship is a strong enough foundation to build on.

Of course, in politics personalities alone don’t founder political alliances. But Bibi is in Likud, and he wants his party to maintain control over whatever coalition emerges from the election. A powerful Jewish Home serving in the government, with its own agenda, could derail Bibi’s efforts to maintain a stable coalition and endanger his own position.

There is also the image problem. David Horovitz correctly notes that—despite popular misconceptions—Bibi hasn’t been building settlements throughout the entire West Bank. But Bennett would—at least throughout Area C, which he wants to annex—while maintaining security control over the rest of the territory. And unlike Bibi, who has publicly said he supports the two-state solution, Bennett has been explicit that the Palestinians won’t get their own state.

Bringing Jewish Home into the government will also distract from other issues, particularly social and economic ones—which Israelis have said are their top concerns. Expending resources on settlements at this time might even bring back the ghost of Yitzhak Shamir to haunt Bibi. In the 1992 election, Shamir insisted on defending expenditures on settlements even while Israelis were telling pollsters they wanted the government to focus on issues within the Green Line. Shamir’s West Bank focus cost him the election.

Because of all this, Bibi is less comfortable with Bennett than Tobin, and others, assume. He’s always had other coalition options, but it’s been hard for Bibi to directly attack Bennett. Bennett is very popular, and many among the right and religious Zionist community see him as a savior-type figure. And Bibi’s own Likud party’s shift to the nationalist right has constrained him.

But Bibi now has his opening. Last Thursday, Bennett said in an interview that if given an order from the army to evacuate settlers from their West Bank homes, he would ask to be excused from carrying it out on the grounds of conscientious objection because “to kick people off of this land is a terrible thing.” Bennett added that he wasn’t calling for widespread disobedience, but if he personally could ask for an exemption on these grounds, others could as well. He opened the door to mass refusal of IDF orders.

Reactions across the political spectrum came quickly. The leader of a Zionist party contending he’d ignore orders from the military set a dangerous precedent—alternate sources of power and refusal to acknowledge the authority of the state are some of the components that make for a failed state. It’s also an unpopular position among rightists and the national-religious for whom the state is an important vehicle for realizing (their understanding of) the Zionist dream.

It took some time for Bennett to fully clarify that he wouldn’t disobey the order if his request was rejected. But the point was already made, and for Bibi this was a bigger opportunity: to castigate Jewish Home, and Bennett himself, for its extremist priorities and the damage they would cause Israel in the international arena.

“Anyone who upholds insubordination will not serve in my Cabinet,” Netanyahu responded in an interview. Some of his ministers took more direct aim at Bennett. But Bennett then gave Bibi further opportunity by reacting harshly to the criticism, accusing Likud of being behind a series of ads attacking Bennett (and comparing his comment on IDF orders to a similar one made by Labor candidate Merav Michaeli), and claiming Bibi himself opened the “gates of hell” on him.

Painting Bennett as an extremist who will undermine the state itself while strengthening international condemnations of Israel will probably be a new Likud tactic in the days to come. Since Bibi can’t attack Jewish Home or Bennett for their lack of dedication to the Land of Israel, hitting them for their lack of dedication to the State of Israel appears to be the next best thing.