By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg *
If a year in politics is a very long time, a year in Israeli politics is an eternity and this has been especially true for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who this month completed his first year in office.
All things considered, it is nothing short of a miracle that his government is still holding up — just. In a rather unusual step, Bennett has marked this milestone by releasing a 27-page pamphlet, circulated on social media, that aims to serve as an urgent wake-up call to the “silent Zionist majority” in face of the dangers posed to his government, and the country, by the toxicity of the ultranationalist right, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies.
It is impossible to know whether the coalition government will still be in place by the time you read this but the pamphlet is nevertheless a document of considerable importance as testimony to the state of Israeli politics and society, and also to Bennett’s mindset which, at least on the evidence of his document, lacks coherence and smacks of desperation.
The prime minister has taken pains to protest that he is neither Netanyahu nor someone who has veered to the left. He can rest assured that his year in office has confirmed this but, in this rather amateurish, sketchy and somewhat intellectually lazy appeal to Israelis, or at least to some of them, he has missed an opportunity to either inspire people with some lucid thinking about the future of the country or to convincingly position himself as a leader with a viable alternative national agenda.
To begin with, he was elected, even if narrowly, to be the prime minister of all Israelis, not only those who define themselves as Zionists. Most of the country’s Palestinian minority have not subscribed to the Zionist dogma and, quite frankly, why should they? Still, they are Israeli citizens, with good reason to support the current administration, mainly for the same reason that others do, which is to ensure that they have seen the back of Netanyahu, and for good.
To exclude one-fifth of the population from such an appeal for support is neither the act of a distinguished democrat nor is it politically astute. It is especially bizarre considering that the prime minister sings the praises of Mansour Abbas for joining the coalition. Abbas heads the United Arab List and without him, and the courage he has shown by joining this problematic partnership, Bennett would not have become prime minister.
It is clear that the pamphlet is mainly directed at Israel’s Jewish population; it is also a document that from the very beginning prefers to emphasize the toxicity of the opposition rather than the achievements of the governing coalition, despite the fact that there are a number of these.
It is self-evident that many of Bennett’s right-wing opponents in the Knesset are not worthy of a seat in any democratic parliament of good repute. There is nothing constructive about Netanyahu and his Likud supporters, nor vile ultranationalists such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, in their criticisms of the government. They vote against bills that, ideologically, they are more in favor of than are some members of the government, merely to embarrass the coalition and in the hope of bringing about its collapse.
As if this were not enough to provide an example of the rightwing’s constant harassment and despicable incitements against him personally, as well as against his ministers and his supporters in the Knesset and others, it is telling that Bennett also chose to warn Israelis that the long history of the Jews teaches us that they have enjoyed only two, relatively short periods of self-rule in their own sovereign country and neither of those periods lasted for more than 80 years. And why did they not endure? It was mainly the result of domestic fragmentation. Now, in its 75th year of independence, Israel is socially and politically divided and incapable of maintaining a stable government.
That is a really scary historical comparison to make, especially when it comes from the person who holds the most powerful position in the land. Is it a deliberate scare tactic to shake and shock those he calls the silent majority, in hopes that they will take to the streets and to social media to counter the relatively small, but determined and violent, opposition to his government? Or, a year into his tenure, has the notion crept into his thinking that Israel cannot survive for much longer if these divisions continue?
Bennett spends more time in this pamphlet protesting that he had no choice but to form this government due to the lack of a rightwing option, instead of underlining the value of a coalition that embraces politicians of different convictions, such as the one he leads. But it appears he does not genuinely believe this and that this pamphlet represents the start of his campaign for a general election that might be looming.
He tediously restates the undemocratic and vile practices of some of his rightwing rivals, which is fine but will probably prove insufficient as a rallying cry to bring the silent majority onto the streets and onto social media in his support — maybe because this silent majority does not really exist.
And although Bennett’s insistence on underlining his own rightwing, not to mention patriotic, credentials might have the charm of a tearful child who has been rejected by his playmates, it nevertheless sounds equally pathetic because he, as prime minister, should long ago have led the charge against the racist and violent nature of those who currently oppose him. The trouble is that until recently, those people were his supporters and he has contributed during his political life to the nurturing of this monster.
This reaching out to the public has been a missed opportunity to reposition himself as a pragmatic leader, rather than one who instead repeatedly emphasizes how much tougher he is than Netanyahu on Hamas and Iran; how his government blocked the opening of a US consulate in East Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians; and how he is building new, illegal settlements and expanding others in the occupied Golan Heights and the West Bank — hallelujah!
Not a single word of Bennett’s lengthy document is devoted to improving relations with the Palestinians who live under Israel’s cruel occupation. And to top it all, in a move that even Netanyahu did not try to instigate, the annual Flag March by Israeli nationalists was returned to its previous route through the Muslim Quarter in East Jerusalem. Every provocation of Palestinians that Netanyahu could do, Bennett and his government can do better.
This might be a “change government” when it comes to the superficialities of style but the prime minister’s pamphlet is merely a sad reflection of his failure to change.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.