(November 25, 2018 / Israel Hayom) It was one of those weeks Habayit Hayehudi Chairman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett would prefer to forget.
When he says that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “won,” you can understand why. With those words, Bennett aptly summarized the transition from his ultimatum that he would resign unless appointed defense minister to folding on the matter on live television.
What was, to put it mildly, not Bennett’s greatest week was, of course, one of Netanyahu’s best. True, he was left with a 61-member coalition and a shaky future, but he achieved his primary goal of taking back control. A Knesset member even compared him to “Superman” for his seeming ability to stop a runaway train from speeding off the cliff.
Last Sunday evening, things looked different. Netanyahu was set to issue a special statement at 8 p.m., and the assessment was that he would either announce early elections or make one last attempt to save the day. Just 15 minutes earlier, Bennett announced that he and Justice Minister and fellow Habayit Hayehudi member Ayelet Shaked would be making a joint announcement the next morning in Tel Aviv.
It was clear that by announcing their joint press conference ahead of Netanyahu’s speech, they were hoping to influence what the prime minister would say within a very short time frame. They wanted to signal to Netanyahu that should he surrender, everything would collapse.
To their surprise, Netanyahu didn’t even flinch, and in the end, it was Bennett who was left without too many options. With these thoughts in mind, Bennett returned from his Jerusalem bureau, where he had watched the news conference, to his office in Tel Aviv, where he had arranged to meet Shaked for consultations ahead of their joint statement the following day. All the while, his phone buzzed with phone calls and messages, none of which he answered. He didn’t answer anyone during those two hours, that is until he got a phone call from Nobel laureate Professor Robert J. (Yisrael) Aumann. When Bennett saw his number on the screen, he decided to take the call.
Putting the good of the country first
Bennett remembers the sage advice that Aumann gave him three years prior, when the current government was being formed. You are too scattered, the professor said. Focus on one demand from Netanyahu and prepare to thwart the formation of the government for that issue. Bennett listened and decided to focus his efforts on having Shaked appointed justice minister. The plan proved a success.
So, of course, when Aumann called this time around, Bennett felt he had to answer. In my opinion, the professor told a stunned Bennett, you should not quit the government. But according to game theory, for which Aumann is internationally renowned, the first one to blink loses, the minister replied. Bennett said the public’s trust in him would erode, as would the party’s ability to obtain concessions from Netanyahu later on. True, Aumann responded, public trust will sustain some damage, but the country is more important.
In a conversation with Israel Hayom ahead of the weekend and after the smoke had cleared, Bennett admitted that conversation with Aumann had the most impact on his decision to fold and withdraw his demand for the defense portfolio.
Q: It was not just Professor Aumann, but many others in your party, lawmakers, activists, rabbis and former officers from the religious Zionist community who did not support this ultimatum to Netanyahu. Could it be your public is not as supportive of you as you would like to think?
A: “I am a public servant, and the meaning of leadership is to sometimes take the public one step forward, even if the public isn’t there yet. When I demanded the justice portfolio for Ayelet Shaked, the public really pressed and started shouting that I was torpedoing the establishment of a right-wing government. But I did it and I succeeded. This week, the distance between myself and the public was pretty great. The commander should be at a distance, but here the distance was too great.”
Q: The same is true with your attempts to have the chairman of Israeli soccer team Beitar Jerusalem, Eli Ohana, join Habayit Hayehudi. You moved too quickly. Again, the public showed you the limits of your power. The same thing happened at the last Habayit Hayehudi conference, when you were booed and barely able to pass the amendment to the party’s constitution you wanted.
A: “I am not a man who never makes mistakes. Netanyahu won. I preferred for him to beat me than for Hamas to defeat the State of Israel. In this instance, I put the country above myself, its good above my own.”
Soldiers before terrorists
The pressure on Bennett from within Habayit Hayehudi was unbearable. Senior rabbis, retired military figures from the national religious sector, activists and lawmakers were all in a tizzy. The thought of their party quitting the government made them lose their minds. Beit El Rabbi Shabtay Savto announced he would instruct his thousand students to vote for the Likud Party should Bennett quit. Organization heads established a headquarters and were even willing to announce the establishment of an alternative national religious party.
One of the few lawmakers who succeeded in getting hold of Bennett on that dramatic night was fellow party member MK Moti Yogev, who said resigning would be a mistake. Yogev would also rush to congratulate Bennett on his decision to remain in the coalition government the following day.
Q: Why didn’t you consult with the faction? Was this not a decision that affected everyone?
A: “I did speak with some of the people. Naturally, when you are managing a sensitive political situation, you need to maintain a small forum. There is a time for sharing, and there is a time for sensitive and silent actions.”
Q: Did you go too far when you said soldiers are more worried about military lawyers than Hamas? Your comments angered the attorney general and the chief of staff.
A: “It is important that I say we have a very serious problem in the defense establishment, which is that the hands of our fighters are increasingly tied by legal and conceptual shackles. I am one of the veteran members of the security cabinet. What I am saying may be difficult to hear, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is true: If we would have taken down the terrorist homes in Shujaiyya before the Golani Brigade’s ground attack and not afterward, we would have spared the lives of soldiers who would still be among us. That was a dramatic event. I say unequivocally that fear of international law and [the International Criminal Court in] The Hague is excessive and imposes unnecessary restraints on our soldiers.
“I do not deny [the role of] international law, but the person who should determine what is proportionate and what is necessary for the lives of our soldiers is the commander in the field and not lawyers in war rooms. The Hague court now draws it power from the moral distortion of European countries that have turned it into a political tool. This is not a court that was meant to be dealing with issues of the war on terror or the State of Israel, which has its own healthy and independent system for self-critique. I hope the prime minister keeps his promise to shake up all of the systems, destroy the terrorists’ homes as necessary and evacuate [Bedouin village] Khan al-Ahmar, and I will not rest until these things happen. I thought the prime minister would not have the available time to bring about the revolution, but since he took the mission upon himself, I will be there to ensure he succeeds.”
Q: Nevertheless, that was an acerbic statement.
A: “I completely stand behind the statement that the courts’ excessive intervention costs us lives. During [2014’s] ‘Operation Protective Edge,’ there were quite a few instances where, because we spared an enemy life, we caused our soldiers to get hut or allowed the enemy to escape. But Israeli lives come before those of the enemy’s soldiers, and I say this without hesitation. When I see a situation in which concrete blocks are thrown at our soldiers and instead of shooting they [IDF soldiers] retreat, something bad is happening. When I see terrorists who take apart sections of the security fence in Gaza and come out alive, that is another sign that something is not right. The same with those launching explosive balloons, where we shoot near them instead of directly at them. It’s immoral.
“The Israeli public has healthy instincts. It prefers the enemy die before us. Seven months ago, I presented a broad plan to crush Hamas targets from the air to the cabinet to completely destroy them, instead we are working with tweezers. I don’t think we should be using tweezers on Hamas.”
Q: In retrospect, where did you go wrong? Was it when you issued the ultimatum, the fact that you underestimated Netanyahu’s resistance, or was it that you didn’t first make certain your public would back you up?
A: “It’s too early for me to carry out a postmortem, especially when I am the mortem, but it must be said that the whole world thought I was taking an impossible mission on myself and that there was no chance of me succeeding in bringing about a revolution in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] in a short time span. They said, look how former Defense Ministers [Moshe] Yaalon and Amir Peretz and Ehud Barak all ended up, and they may be right. But you need to understand that this is the reason I entered politics. I like the education portfolio, but there is something more critical than that and that is for Israel to return for eternity. We haven’t been winning for decades.”
Q: Could it be you belong to the wrong political party? What does the Habayit Hayehudi [literally, Jewish Home] party have to do with security?
A: “I told Netanyahu in a meeting we held on Friday that I am not issuing him an ultimatum. I told him I want the portfolio because I think I can handle it appropriately. He told me: ‘I want to say there is no reason why you shouldn’t be defense minister.’ But actually, he decided to take the portfolio for himself. In politics, sometimes you succeed, sometimes you take a hit. We knew before the speech that we could handle the ridicule and scorn. It was one of the least pleasant moments of my public life, but such is leadership. It’s part of the package. Unlike [Defense Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, who just ran from the battlefield when he failed, I did the opposite. I took responsibility.
“I have the most important role in the State of Israel, which is education minister. I feel that I have brought about no less of a revolution from collapse to a leap forward in science and mathematics, the periphery and the strengthening of Zionism, Jewish identity and the Bible, the cancellation of the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria, establishing the first private university in Israel [IDC Herzliya]. We broke the university cartel, we developed Ariel University. But ultimately, the reason I, a major in the Second Lebanon War, entered [politics] was because I saw the embarrassment and failure against Hezbollah. I was shocked, and I swore to myself that I would fix this. I had fun working in high-tech companies, but I chose public life for this reason. Immediately after the joint statement with Shaked on Monday, I went and made a surprise visit to a high school in [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Gilo to breathe in the students and the education. I am in love with the position.”
Q: So, that’s it? The dream of being defense minister is over?
A: “The dream is not the portfolio but to bring back the fighting spirit. I very much hope that I will be tasked with this mission in the next government. It won’t come easy. We will need many more mandates for that to happen.”
Q: Do you foresee a situation in which you issue an ultimatum for the portfolio after the elections?
A: “Forget about ultimatums. In my career, even as a company commander, there have been failures, also later on in the high-tech sector. You need to know how to get back up. Sometimes, you win, and sometimes, you take a hit. But the trick is to know how to get back up on your feet.”
Beware those pulling to the left
Members of Israel’s political establishment mocked Bennett for even attempting to issue an ultimatum to the prime minister and compared him to a mouse threatening a lion. When Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) was asked to comment on the limits of Bennett’s power in the government, he related the story of how late Beatles singer John Lennon responded when asked whether he thought Beatles drummer Ringo Starr was the best in his field. Starr, Lennon replied, wasn’t even the best in the band.
But the truth is more complicated than that. This was not Bennett’s first ultimatum to Netanyahu. According to the logic of a number of commentators, Bennett should have lost every time, but that has not been the case.
Following the 2013 elections, Bennett threatened not to join the coalition if Yesh Atid Party head Yair Lapid did not join with him. It worked. Netanyahu was forced to end his cooperation with the haredi parties and instead work with Lapid.
Following the 2015 elections, Bennett threatened to not to join the coalition if the justice portfolio wasn’t given to Shaked. She was appointed in the end.
In contrast, when Bennett demanded a military secretary for the cabinet and threatened to resign and retire if did not get his way, it ended in failure. Netanyahu used Bennett’s threat as an excuse to establish the Amidror Commission. Bennett remained in the government nonetheless.
Q: As a man of the right, you must have identified with some of the things Lieberman said about government dysfunction when he resigned.
A: “The coalition is like a game of tug-of-war. Netanyahu is the prime minister and will likely continue to be, but as long as we pull to the Right, everyone else pulls to the Left. This is true of security as well as legal issues like the override clause. When Lieberman was defense minister, he decided to double the [Palestinian West Bank] city of Qalqilya. I managed to stop him. In other instances, I was less successful. The whole story with the transfer of Qatari money to the [Gaza] strip is Lieberman’s initiative. In Aug. 2016, 31 million shekels ($8.29 million) were transferred from Qatar to the strip, more than double what was transferred now, and the person who did that was Lieberman.
“The policy he led in the two years he was in the coalition was the policy of the Left. Whether it was the never-ending statements that he was willing to vacate his home in [the West Bank settlement of] Nokdim for the establishment of an Arab state, his vote in favor of postponing the evacuation of Khan al-Ahmar or the soft policy toward the arson terrorists on the Gaza border in the last year. He inherited a deterred Hamas and left with 530 rockets [fired] on Israel and abandoned the battlefield. It is a mark of Cain that will be permanently stuck to him.”
Q: Will you support the proposed amendment to Basic Law: The government, by which the president will have to task the head of the party that won the elections with forming the government?
A: “Netanyahu has never actually spoken to me about the legislation. On the surface, there is some logic to it. The idea that only a party head can form a government is correct. But if they added details that could result in an unwelcome phenomenon, we would need to examine it. When you play with election rules, you sometimes end up with the opposite of what you hoped for. That was the case with the direct election law, for example, which instead of bringing security, further decimated the parties.”
From Bennett’s perspective, one good thing to come out of the most recent crisis concerns the National Union Party, which belongs to the Habayit Hayehudi faction. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who issued a statement in support of Bennett’s resignation from the government when he thought that was where the winds were headed, did so after he had assured himself a place in Habayit Hayehudi’s next Knesset list, with an agreement between him and Bennett that the National Union party would maintain its independence as a separate party under one Knesset list with Habayit Hayehudi, apparently in contradiction to Bennett’s insistence thus far.
Q: What will Habayit Hayehudi’s next Knesset list look like?
A: “First of all, we are running together with the National Union. I have reached the conclusion that you don’t need to insist on dismantling the independence and the differentiation they are interested in. At the same time, I want to open up the faction to new sectors, to the traditional, non-kipah-wearing community, and that is our greatest challenge.”