Assessing Naftali Bennett and Israel’s new leadership

After four elections and two months of political wrangling Israel finally has a new government, now headed by Naftali Bennett for the next two years.  Under Israel’s political system this is a coalition, now called a “unity government” but united in only in agreement that Bibi Netanyahu no longer serve as prime minister.  Sadly after a 12 years as prime minister, and a total of 15 years in the post, Bibi did not go quietly.  

Even though the left-wing Labor Party, which ruled Israel in the early days, managed to include itself in the new coalition, it won only seven of the 120 Knesset seats and will have few government posts. Right-wing, or ultra-right-wing parties won some 80 percent of the vote and dominate the new government, while the Israeli press describe Mr. Bennett as “10 points to the right of Netanyahu.”

Under a novel agreement, Mr.  Bennett will serve as prime minister for two years, and then rotate this post to Yair Lapid who will serve as alternate prime minister and foreign minister before the change. Aside from neither being Mr. Netanyahu, both have much to recommend them. Mr. Bennett spent much of his life living in the U.S., and speaks perfect English. Mr. Lapid, who is self-educated, became popular as a journalist and broadcaster, also has excellent English, and many credit him with deftly putting the new coalition and government together, with a range of parties that are most unlikely bedfellows.

Both have a deep understanding of American culture and have also built up relationships on both sides of the political aisle over the years, having visited the U.S. numerous times while serving in official state capacities. Mr. Bennett most recently while defense minister in February 2020 and Mr. Lapid as an opposition leader in January 2020.  

While most of Mr. Lapid’s earlier trips to the U.S. have been focused on politics and relationship-building with lawmakers behind closed doors, Mr. Bennett’s trips have been dedicated to appearances on international media and explaining Israeli positions on issues of the day. It is widely believed that Mr. Lapid, who comes from the centrist Yesh Atid party, will become the face of the Israeli government to the U.S. in the near-future. Both Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid enjoy strong relations with U.S. Jewish establishment organizations.

From the outset Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid, will prioritize restoring bipartisan U.S. support for Israel in D.C. Their preexisting contacts and personal backgrounds, as well as a shared desire to improve and build upon ties, help provide insight into how the incoming Israeli government will approach the so-called “special relationship” with its most important strategic ally.

Mr. Lapid, a former journalist and TV host, first entered the Knesset in 2013, and has  met several times with leading Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, and others including some of the more progressive Jewish Democrats in Congress.

Earlier Mr. Lapid has met with Republican officials such as Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, as well as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, as well as with Joe Biden, when he was vice president. Speaking at a Brookings conference this year, Mr. Lapid told delegates: “We need to go back to making Israel acceptable for both sides of the aisle, for Democrats and Republicans,” adding, “I’m going to do much better work in making sure Israel goes back to being a bipartisan issue in the United States.”

For this part Mr. Bennett is well-regarded among his right-wing, establishment base, although he was often cast aside for Mr. Netanyahu, but like Mr. Netanyahu his policies are often diametrically opposed to those of the American-Jewish left. His immediate priority, however, will be staffing up and setting a government policy agenda before determining which of those preexisting relationships in  the U.S. he can count on.

Since the coalition’s successful formation last week, some Democrats have raised concerns, looking to old footage of Mr. Bennett’s appearance at Brookings  where he put forth stances on settlements, annexation and the Palestinians that they find unacceptable. He has previously said that a two-state solution would be “suicide” for Israel and called for the annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank. At the same time, there is a general openness toward him, however, because his success means keeping Mr. Netanyahu in the opposition and also because the new coalition includes left-wing parties and, for first time in Israel’s history, an Arab party.

More recently Mr. Bennett has adapted rhetoric on “shrinking” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a notable diplomatic signal to the U.S., a path that is seen as an alternative to “solving” or “managing” the conflict. It seeks to contain the conflict by empowering Palestinians without compromising Israeli security. Although Mr. Bennett might adapt this philosophy with the understanding that the Palestinians would also need to make similar gestures, it is a clear sign that he intends to not disregard the Biden administration’s desire for improved relations on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians.

Secretary of State Blinken has already made clear that Mr. Lapid will be their point of contact in the new government — particularly after Mr. Blinken managed to add Mr. Lapid to his schedule during his recent visit to the Middle East, but not Mr. Bennett.  While there is much to say for this approach, and considerable hope for better relations across the political spectrum with Bibi Netanyahu and Donald Trump both gone, there are major issues to be considered.

How the U.S. deals with Iran in the ongoing negotiations remains a matter of major concern, and a new era of good will cannot eliminate Israel’s concerns. Dealing with the security concerns raised by Palestinians in Israel and Gaza will also be a matter of great concern, as the new Israeli government largely rejects the “two state solution” and have made the most limited of gestures to the Arab party added to the coalition.

Clearly Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid have their work cut out for them, not only at home with a “unity” coalition that has been over-promised, but in dealing with the new Biden administration in the U.S. Hopefully they will enjoy the broad base of support they have enjoyed within the American political establishment and Jewish community that has eroded in the past few years.

• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford and is the author of the forthcoming book “Israel and the Search for Peace: New Realities and a Way Forward.

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