There was once a conservative politician who became prime minister through some parliamentary maneuvering, having not been elected to the position. Members of his own party despised him and deemed him unfit for high office. He then served with distinction. His name was Winston Churchill and after he was appointed Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1940, he inspired, guided and led Britain to a victory over the Nazis. He even cajoled major world powers, like the United States, to view the conflict as he did.
There was also a politician who had enormous political and military achievements to his credits. Under very trying circumstances, it is widely assumed that he saved his nation from destruction and even from entering into a premature “peace” agreement involving concessions with a hated enemy. Instead he relentless pursued victory – and he won. For his efforts, little over a month after the war ended, his grateful nation summarily threw him out of office. That man – also Winston Churchill –was not just ousted from office; he and his party lost in a crushing landslide. Privately, though, he refused to denounce his people for their ingratitude. Instead, he accepted his defeat graciously, with typical good humor.
None of this is to suggest that either Naftali Bennett or Binyamin Netanyahu is Winston Churchill reincarnate. History repeats itself but never precisely. But count me in the very small camp that is not devastated by or deliriously happy about the impending fall of Netanyahu, or is overly trepidatious over the impending Bennett government (which will still shock me if it occurs). I did not vote for either man, but perhaps a little perspective is in order about each of them.
It is still hard to digest the antipathy that exists in much of Israel to Netanyahu – a man whose political accomplishments are as considerable as his personal flaws. Having lived through the sheer hatred many Americans spewed against George W. Bush and Donald Trump, it is worth noting even that did not engender the non-stop protests that Israel has seen against Netanyahu over the last few years. From one vantage point, Netanyahu is probably the most successful Prime Minister Israel has ever had. His tenure was marked by relative security, relative prosperity, a modernized military, an energized economic juggernaut, peace with multiple Arab nations that provided Israelis with hope that we will finally gain some measure of acceptance in the Arab world, the litany of Trumpian pro-Israel moves, and a resolute defense of Israel’s interests on the world stage and, when necessary, to the United States.
From that standpoint, it is inexplicable why he has never won 40 or 50 seats in the Knesset. That he maxes out at 30-32 mandates – roughly a quarter of the population – is attributable in small part to the various other ideologies that inhabit denizens of this land, but in much larger part to his character defects that have simply disgusted the leaders of six other parties and preclude them from working with him even for the good of the population. It is strange, perhaps unconscionable, but politics is personal. All the right-wingers who currently refuse to work with Netanyahu worked with him in the past and now demur. Moreover, he has this irritating, even oleaginous habit, of accusing his rivals of doing what he himself once did, is doing, and will do in the future.
A lesser mystery, only because he is less known, is the hysteria greeting the ascendancy of Naftali Bennett. It is as ridiculous to assert that the leader of a six person party cannot be prime minister as it is to assert that the winner of the popular vote, not the Electoral College majority, in American presidential elections should be the president. Those are not the rules of the game. Besides, Bennett’s triumph is akin to the coach whose 8-8 wild card team wins the Super Bowl. They didn’t win that much, they might not be the best team in objective terms but they won when it counted. One would think that anyone with those political skills would be acclaimed.
Well over a decade ago, I met Naftali Bennett for the first time when he visited Teaneck, the New Jersey town where he lived for several years as a child. It was before he had entered politics but he spelled out to me his plans for future. In particular, he underscored how disconcerting he found it that Religious Zionists accepted being adjuncts to power but never leaders, and his objective was to someday become Prime Minister. I was skeptical, he was determined, and one can only admire someone who has a vision and executes it. All politicians are ambitious but despite the zigzags he has remained faithful to the motivating factors that ushered him into politics.
It is unfair to hold him out as the Religious Zionist standard bearer. He always intended to broaden the base of Religious Zionism beyond Religious Zionists; hence the long time alliance with Ayelet Shaked. One can fairly say that he used the Religious Zionist infrastructure to get ahead but politicians have ambition like they have hearts and lungs. I have heard some argue that he has no ideology except gaining power. I don’t accept that because power is only valuable when it is used in pursuit of some policy aim. Most of his stated policy aims, for years already, are ones that can be welcomed.
Similarly, the indictment that Bennett has betrayed his voters or lied to the electorate is a bit overbroad. Political campaigns traffic in misstatements and prevarications (as in the old joke: How do you know when a politician is lying? When you see his lips moving.) Sure, he made promises not to sit with this one or that one, often couched in coy language and sometimes even contradictory, as they all did. But, as I recall quite clearly, he had one overarching theme that he underscored again and again: to do everything in his power to prevent a fifth election. I believe that is his guiding principle.
One can fairly ask what is wrong with a fifth election. After all, we survived the first four quite well. The answer is that pursuant to the current constellation of parties and personalities the fifth election would only be the prelude to the sixth or seventh. And at a certain point, even anarchists will have had enough. It should be clear that as long as Netanyahu heads the Likud, with all his talents and accomplishments, he cannot form a majority coalition and his governments will be a hodgepodge of strange bedfellows, and short-lived to boot. That is where we are and that has to change.
Obviously, the government that is a blatant hodgepodge of strange bedfellows is the proposed one whose only common objective is ending Netanyahu’s historic reign. Most troubling, it contains a number of unsavory characters whose presence should concern sentient Jews, both for reasons of character and policy. There are people who will sit in the Cabinet who, if reason and common sense ever prevailed, should never come within missile range of the levers of power. Hatred (like love), Chazal tell us, mekalkelet et hashurah, upsets the natural order. It causes people to do things they would never have contemplated doing. Hatred for Netanyahu spawned the creation of this patchwork government. Can that same hatred keep it alive?
The potential harm can be mitigated if Israeli politics becomes even a little less tribal. The fear of a center-left government is exaggerated. What will exist is a center-right-left government, which is to say, no government at all. But if twenty Likud members break away and join the coalition, there is no need for Ra’am, Meretz or Labor – and suddenly the right-center-left government is a center-right government, which it should have been all along. If Shas joins, there is no need for Lieberman. Who knows what is planned? Opposition is a lonely place to be, and opposition MK’s usually do little more than call press conferences, rant on talk shows or whistle into the wind. And it is most unpleasant to see the joy on the faces of left-wing politicians whose vision of a Jewish state has little Jewish about it and are ecstatic at this unexpected turn of events.
There is certainly cause for concern going forward. One would hope that, for all the joys of being in government or having a ministry, if the anti-Torah forces demand that the Torah, Jewish values and the Jewish character of the state (conversion, personal status, etc.) be undermined, religious Jews like an Elkin or an Urbach – even a Bennett – will know to walk away and thus end the whole exercise. If Ra’am suppresses the ability to protect Jewish life and property, or seeks to override the law and permit illegal building (something that the government has overlooked for years, except when Jews did it) one can hope that a Shaked or a Sa’ar will know to walk away.
The collective fear of Netanyahu’s descent and Bennett’s ascent is also fear of the unknown. Netanyahu has been the leader for what amounts in democracies to an eternity. Bennett has been successful in all his ministries and in his business life, but who knows if that translates into the leadership of a fractious nation?
Sure, there is fear that the left will fulfill all its policy wishes: no Shabbat in the land, religious pluralism, mass conversion, reduced funding for Yeshivot, a halt on settlement in Judea and Samaria – in short, an assault on the Jewish character of the land of Israel. That cannot, should not and need not be. I doubt that it will happen. In fact, I doubt much of anything will happen. But perusing the right-wing wish list of the last few years – increased settlement, limiting the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, preserving the sanctity of Shabbat against commercial onslaught – we should recall that none of that happened under a right-wing government.
If we take the politicians at their word – admittedly a hazardous exercise – the dreams of each of the motley crew that will constitute the next government will be put on hold, both the religious and the secular dreams. Granted that the only real item on the agenda of the change government will be changing the prime minister, and that happens automatically. After that, nothing much will change.
As such, the government should focus on three or four important tasks on which some unanimity might be possible – dealing with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, spurring middle class (not luxury) housing construction, cooling social tensions in society, improving infrastructure, growing the free market economy and kicking other cans down the road. The latter is a particular expertise of the adroit politician. The members of such a government are not abandoning their values as much as they are deferring their realization to a time when they are actually possible to realize.
There are some grounds for optimism in the short term, except among those who believe that Netanyahu has a permanent claim to power. It is no denigration of his achievements to note that democracy does not function like that. Nevertheless, right-wingers and religious Jews can be suspicious, and perhaps even disappointed. But disappointment that is unaccompanied by an alternative other than permanent stalemate is counterproductive. We would do better to be cautious without being negative and strengthen Bennett during the invariable crises that this hydra-headed government will face to ensure that the destiny of Israel moves forward to a complete Jewish state. It would certainly behoove us to reach out, underscore the grave danger in some of the contemplated religious reforms and work to prevent them, and try to be good influences rather than hysterically rant and rave from the outside, which accomplishes nothing.
In the meantime, Netanyahu can bask in the well deserved accolades for his tenure and finish his trial in due haste. (I hope he is acquitted – and I also hope his trial is not dragged out for years.) It would be good for him and the nation if a PM Bennett utilized his services if needed, as a special envoy to world leaders with whom Netanyahu has had a fine working relationship. Note as well that the incoming government is one that is built not to last. As shocking as are these turns of events, it will be even more shocking, even inconceivable, if Yair Lapid becomes prime minister in two years. And if the government succumbs and indulges the leftist wish list – forsaking the land of Israel and its Torah – then it will be catastrophic, a sad echo of the right-wing implosion in 1992 that heralded the Oslo fiasco.
Remember too that the reviled, routed Winston Churchill was elected Prime Minister in 1951 – the only time he actually was voted into the prime minister’s office – and at age 77. By comparison, all the current politicians are still wet behind the ears. Politics is filled with second and third comebacks, as well as journeys into the unknown.