Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just gave his education minister an education.
Bulletproof Bibi started this week in political chaos. His defense minister had quit leaving him with a razor-thin majority in Knesset, and Naftali Bennett looked poised to exploit this weakness, bring the coalition tumbling down and force early elections. But by the end of Monday the prime minister had defeated the threat.
Bennett, who is head of the rightist Jewish Home party as well as education minister, was making a brazen demand: He wanted to fill the newly vacated Defense Ministry post. He claimed that Israel is too soft on terror, and promised to bring down the government if he wasn’t given the defense post.
He seemed to be in a win-win situation. If he pulled his party out of the coalition, the government would automatically collapse. So, he looked likely to get the defense minister post, and if he did not, he would get to fight in new elections, in which he is expected to gain seats.
A former chief-of-staff for Netanyahu, he thinks he knows the prime minister well, and tried to make him sweat over Shabbat. Just before sundown on Friday, sources close to Bennett distributed a message saying that there “was a need to go to elections as soon as possible with no possibility of continuing the current government,” adding that an election date would be set on Sunday.
Sunday came and went. On Monday morning, Bennett assembled a press conference and it seemed that the moment had arrived for the election date to be announced. Instead, he backed down. Without a single concession from Bibi, he simply walked away from the prime minister’s threat, and agreed to remain in the government.
“I say here to the prime minister we are removing all of our political demands and will help you in the great mission of making Israel win again,” said Bennett. “I know I may pay a political price — it is not the end of the world; you win some, you lose some.”
And so, it was clear that Netanyahu is the Harry Houdini of Israeli politics, able to escape from even the tightest of spots. Bennett, whose rise has been fast since entering Knesset just five years ago, came out of the saga looking like Israel’s equivalent of former British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Cameron, wanting to solidify his standing, thought that offering a Brexit referendum was a safe gamble, as the public would clearly decide to remain within the European Union. (It wasn’t to be, of course, and Cameron resigned.) Bennett, wanting to advance his career, thought that threatening Netanyahu was a good gamble.
And on paper it was, for if Bennett removed his party from the government, it would fall. Apart from one thing: He underestimated Netanyahu’s ability to reframe the discussion.
Netanyahu told citizens in a televised address on Sunday that there are security considerations they don’t understand. “We are in a particularly complex security situation and in moments like these we do not go to elections,” he said, adding: “In the middle of a battle we do not play politics.”
He acknowledged that people were unhappy with the outcome of last week’s Gaza confrontations but intimated that it was part of a calculated strategy. “I have a clear plan,” he said. And he presented Bennett as putting his career advancement above the nation’s security, which is “beyond personal concerns.” By contrast, he portrayed himself as selflessly acting for the nation.
In the days before the speech he had told coalition partners that they should avoid the “historic mistake” of 1992, when a right-wing government was brought down and the result was a left-wing government that signed the Oslo Accords.
This history is still a fresh wound to many on the right. Netanyahu, under attack from Bennett for being too centrist, prompted Bennett’s natural cheerleaders — the hard right — to talk him out of quitting by invoking 26-year-old memories. Rabbis and public figures leaned on Bennett, saying that betraying Bibi was akin to betraying the nation. If a report on Israel Television News is to be believed, the head of the National Security Council appealed to a leading Religious Zionist rabbi, Haim Druckman, who in turn advised Bennett not to resign.
Bennett emerged from the saga embarrassed, and Bibi emerged emboldened. The prime minister has reasserted himself as Mr. Security, and suggested that his ability to deal with threats is unique, as only he has a true understanding of the region. He has made it clear that he won’t be rushed into elections, and is now predicting that “we have a whole year until the election.” His party is up in the opinion polls. And he has proved himself to be in a different league, in terms of political savvy, than his challengers.
And so, in the very act of avoiding an election, Netanyahu positioned himself exactly where he wants to be when the campaign actually begins.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.