On June 13, Naftali Bennett did what many of his fellow citizens had come to believe was impossible, replacing Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving ruler, as prime minister. Tired after two years of inconclusive elections, Israelis were increasingly anxious for stability and watched the political revolution cautiously, afraid it would not last. No one was more dismissive than Netanyahu, who assured fellow lawmakers attending the new government’s investiture that “in two to three months this thing is breaking up.”
Yet to the surprise of friend and foe alike, 100 days later it appears that former Netanyahu aide Bennett, 49, has managed to keep together his unlikely rainbow coalition. Bennett seems to be heading an unlikely alliance that includes the socialist-leaning Meretz, a champion for gay rights, and the United Arab List (an Islamist party affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood), and is moving smoothly towards the next significant milestone, the passage of a national budget during the first half November.
As Bennett prepares to celebrate his 100th day as prime minister Tuesday, merely having replaced Netanyahu has proved a major shift. Afif Abu Much is a prominent political analyst who stated, “Removing Netanyahu was this government’s task.”
People have forgotten what they’ve liberated themselves from,” stated Ehud Barak (a former Labor Party prime Minister), referring to the chaotic final years of Netanyahu’s premiership. During that time, Netanyahu was indicted on criminal corruption charges and embarked on what critics viewed as an all-out assault on Israeli institutions, including the suspension of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in March 2020, and his attempt, in April 2021, to install a crony as minister of justice, an action overturned by the Supreme Court.
Some who agree with this assessment feel that much more needs to be done.
“If it was to remove Benjamin Netanyahu that was the goal, that has been accomplished,” stated Ahmad Tibi, an experienced legislator from the majority-Arab Joint List and left-wing activist for Palestinian Statehood. He now finds himself in a strange parliamentary position: sitting on the opposition benches with his archrival Netanyahu.
” The real question is whether the policy has changed. In an interview, Tibi stated that no from our perspective. There is no peace process. No change For now, it might be difficult to distinguish Bennett from his predecessor. The entire eight years of Bennett’s time in Israeli electoral politics have been under Netanyahu’s shadow. Bennett, who was a kind of amiable extremist and a leader in the West Bank settlement movement that denied Palestinians the right to an independent state, was known for his attire of polo shirts, jeans and lived in a posh suburb of Tel Aviv. Hints from a different, less strident Bennett were revealed by rare accounts from people who knew him in his early years as a startup executive. In 2013, when Bennett won his first legislative seat, his business partner Lior Golan, a moderate who did not vote for him, said that Bennett’s “dream was to reenact in politics what he did at Cyota — which was a team working in unison toward a certain goal, without internal politics, for mutual success.” Cyota was the startup Bennett founded with three friends, and sold, in 2005, for $145 million in cash. While Bennett’s government is still in paralysis, his description of a team consisting of technocrats working towards a common goal matches the coalition he leads.
“Preserving the nation’s democratic equilibrium prevailed over partisan political objectives,” former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who served from 2006 to 2009, said in an interview about Bennett’s government, which he hailed as “a return to normality.”
Barak, who shares little common political ground with Bennett, said that “for many of us, there is a real sigh of relief. You no longer hear a prime minister alarming citizens of a very powerful state about imagined demons abroad and traitors within.”
At the same time, Israeli media appear to be having trouble letting go of Netanyahu. On Sept. 15, numerous Israeli outlets reported on the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, brokered by the Trump administration, by headlining the fact that Bennett did not mention Netanyahu in his formal remarks.
For those who have been close to Bennett for a long time, Bennett’s ambition and his success as prime minister are not surprising. Yohanan Plesner is the president of Israel Democracy Institute. This non-partisan Jerusalem thinktank has known Bennett since their time together in Sayeret Matkal (the most elite unit in the Israeli army). They became close friends as they were both studying at Hebrew University. Plesner became friends with Bennett a few years later, when they were young aides to Netanyahu, and Olmert, respectively.
Plesner described the Bennett he knew in the late ’80s as “an alpha male, a leader, very entrepreneurial, but also a guy who really listened and was genuinely interested, who took nothing for granted. He was trustworthy, pragmatic, and had his feet on the ground .”
. A generation before him, Netanyahu was an officer in the same legendary unit. Plesner stated that the difference between them is that Bennett’s team still loves him. He is the same. He sees them both as patriots and brothers in arms, even though they may disagree on politics. There’s no hate.”
Bibi, on the other hand, he said, using Netanyahu’s ubiquitous nickname, “nurtured a grudge that just grew and grew against anyone who didn’t agree with him.”
In Plesner’s view, Bennett’s difficulty in establishing a public persona arose from conflicting traits: on the one hand, a true believer in the hard-line politics he represents, but on the other, a “natural uniter.”
The new Israeli government has gained accolades for its rollout of the COVID-19 booster shots, which appears to be diminishing rates of the Delta variant, for Bennett’s successful White House visit in August and ceremonial summit with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, and for renewed diplomatic initiatives toward Jordan and Persian Gulf states.
While Netanyahu, who will turn 72 in October, has not yet succeeded in gaining traction as opposition leader, the specter of his political return is credited with bolstering Bennett. In a positive assessment of Bennett’s first 90 days in office, the Haaretz daily said, “World leaders are empowering him, showering prestige and legitimacy on him, because his predecessor’s return to power is their nightmare. It’s hard to blame them.”
Relief at restoration of conventional diplomacy and regular political process is a common theme among Israeli political observers, even those, like Barak and Olmert, with deep apprehensions about Israel’s predicament.
Topping the list of Israel’s security concerns is Iran’s nuclear program, where, according to retired Gen. Amos Yadlin, “Netanyahu left Bennett a very difficult bequest.” Iran’s race to enrich uranium since the United States, encouraged by Netanyahu, abandoned the multi-national nuclear treaty in 2015, “would force any Israeli prime minister to make some very difficult decisions,” said Yadlin, who recently retired as executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies.
One hundred days is a time when you should not make any mistakes but you don’t have much to brag about.
But Yadlin praised Bennett’s “change of spirit, different music, and the feeling of trust” that he had created in the face of many challenges.