By Gideon Levy, HAARETZ
File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister Naftali Bennett, November 2017Credit: Emil Salman
He’s the next real thing. Naftali Bennett, that is. Following his drubbing at the polls in March, and with a curse from the prime minister’s residence still hanging over his head, he’s back – and big-time. The guy who in the past warned us about tunnels under the border is now becoming the seer of the coronavirus pandemic. Just as he knew how to deal with Gaza, he knows how to deal with COVID-19.
More and more center-left Israelis are being drawn to him. He’s a serious person. Just look how he has been running from one hospital to another and how much he cares. He has a clear doctrine. Bennett knows what has to be done.understands epidemiology, as he did defense and education. And his fraternal relationship with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid is also being restored. Bennett’s Yamina party is taking off in the opinion polls, once again showing the wide berth from one end of the right wing to the other end of the right.
The marveling over Bennett has been fed by the leadership vacuum in the center-left camp, which hasn’t managed to provide any sort of alternative, even in the face of Benjamin Netanyahu’s decline. This political camp will forgive Bennett for being a settlement movement leader and extremist supporter of annexation and apartheid, because in the middle of a pandemic there is no time for trivial matters.
Also forgotten is the fact that he was a dedicated proponent of a free-market economy who, in the face of the first crisis, has changed his spots as if his earlier views never existed. Now he’s calling for massive state intervention to extricate us from the crisis. Bennett is a likeable guy.
He’s great and he’s one of us. So we’ll forgive him his right-wing extremism. His popularity again proves that identity politics is what counts the most in Israel, overshadowing any worldview. Israelis who voted Kahol Lavan or even the Labor Party might vote for Bennett.
Why? Because the distance from the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana, where Bennett lives, and Ramat Aviv Gimel, which is home to Yair Lapid, is the shortest distance there is in Israeli politics. There is nothing closer. Because anyone who has been a success in high-tech, as Bennett was, is a brother.
Because anyone who served in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit and named two of his sons after heroes from the unit is a worthy person. Because someone who grew up on our music and television, who speaks good English as we do and shares our world of images is one of us. After all, as far back as 2013, The New Yorker magazine published a flattering profile of him.
Bennett speaks to the heart of the political camp that longs for the Israel that once was. Maybe he’ll bring it back, despite the miniature skullcap on his head, which is also somehow overlooked. Some people from this camp would prefer Bennett over that outsider, Labor Party leader Amir Peretz. When you take away all the background noise, the truth has to be clearly stated: Bennett is an elitist Ashkenazi, and that’s why he can be acceptable to the center-left camp. Bennett isn’t part of Likud’s alliance of bullies. He’s really not Miki Zohar or David Amsalem or even the articulate Amir Ohana, even though he may be more extreme than any of them. His background and personality define him much more than his racist, nationalist ideology. Because that’s how it is with Israeli politics, and the time has come to admit it.
The wild attacks on the series of Channel 13 News reports by Avishay Ben Haim about Moroccan Israelis only shows how deep the denial and suppression are. Anyone who reacts aggressively to another point of view just proves that the ground is burning under their feet. The fact is that, for his own purposes, Netanyahu has made it possible for that less privileged “other Israel” to flourish just as Menachem Begin did before him. And that didn’t happen with the center-left.
Bennett makes a habit of quoting David Ben-Gurion, maybe more than Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook of religious Zionism. “A leader needs to come out against the prevailing view,” he once said, referring to Ben-Gurion’s position regarding the Jewish forces’ Operation Nachshon in the War of Independence. Ben-Gurion’s connection to the land based on the Bible also provides Bennett with a source for quotations and justifications. In the process, he may be telling the Zionist leftists that he is a true representative of Ben-Gurion’s Mapai, the forerunner of the Labor Party – an heir to the founding father.
At Haaretz’s peace policy conference in 2014, Bennett was heckled and silenced as a fascist by members of the audience. It’s doubtful such a thing would happen now. Since then ideology has died an even greater death, and Bennett has become one of our own.