Bennett Blinked First
At the end of his first year as Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett was faced with the second critical decision point of his political life – the first, of course, being whether or not to join Yair Lapid in forming the most unusual coalition this country has ever seen. That is a subject, however, for a separate article.
While it feels to me like eons have passed since then, it was just three short months ago that Israel stood on the brink. On June 5, the Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman and Tovah Lazaroff wrote, “Failure to pass the bill [the Settlement Law] by the end of June could bring civilian life in the settlements to a grinding halt.”
The Settlement Law has passed automatically every five years since 1967, without fanfare or fuss, so quietly that many Israelis, such as me, were not even aware of the law at all and only learned of it because it became the fulcrum upon which rested the fate of the coalition government. I find it ironic, divine design, or coincidence – pick one according to your personal belief system – that this law came up for renewal (because that is what it was, renewal, just renewal) at the end of Bennett’s first year as leader of the country. I wish it had come up for renewal exactly one year later, after he would have completed his second year and would have had to pass the baton on to Lapid in any case.
Instead, this became a test moment. And Lapid became caretaker prime minister until new elections will, hopefully, see the installation of a new coalition. I was not happy with the paragraph in the coalition agreement that made Lapid interim PM if a right wing member of the coalition was responsible for dissolving it. But I hoped that it could wait another year.
The opposition, however, was impatient.
They could not wait another year. They did not care that there was finally a national budget after a hiatus of two years. They did not care that there was movement forward to setting up new Jewish settlements in the Negev. They did not care that there was a greater concerted effort to combat Arab on Arab violence than before. And I could go on.
Of course, I was not happy with Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli going against coalition agreements by bringing her ideological position into play when she did not carry out all the infrastructure improvement plans in Judea-Samaria. And, of course, I was not happy with Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s selective approach to responding to Jewish versus Arab illegal construction in Judea-Samaria and his declaration that he saw nothing wrong with having a Palestinian state capital in Jerusalem. But this was not Gantz’s first time as DM and his moves in the direction of promoting a Palestinian state alongside Israel began long before the current coalition. And, interestingly, the current opposition members did not raise these serious “Gantz” issues when they were in the previous coalition governments and made little noise about it now.
They had one overriding issue – the fact that Ra’am was in the coalition.
Of course, it does seem strange/incomprehensible/unforgivable that the political branch of the Moslem Brotherhood was in the Israeli coalition government, and there is ample reason to object to this. However, Ra’am did not object to the crackdown on Arab lawlessness (in fact, they wanted it as do all Arab citizens except the crime gangs themselves) and they did not object to the stepped-up arrests of terrorists in Judea-Samaria, and they voted with the coalition. Except for one of their four members (like one of the four members in Meretz), they were going to vote for the Settlement Law.
In other words, Ra’am and Meretz (minus one member each) were going to vote for the continued extension of Israeli jurisdiction over the Jewish residents of Judea-Samaria.
On the other hand, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu voted against it at the first reading, along with the right-wing parties such as Religious Zionism led by Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit led by Itamar Ben Gvir. They all threatened to do so again the next time it would be brought for a vote.
Hoffman and Lazaroff spelled out what this would mean for residents of Judea-Samaria:
“Israeli police would not be able to operate in Area C . . . The more than 450,000 Israelis who live there would be stripped of rights that allow them to operate as if they live within the borders of sovereign Israel. This could include access to state health insurance, the ability to be drafted into the army and the renewal of driver’s licenses.
If this law fails there will be lawyers who can’t register to practice, young adults that can’t enter the army and people who arrive at the hospital that can’t receive treatment, said Elhayani, who is also the head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council.
‘Every day there will be a new story of someone who was harmed,’ he said, adding that ‘the impact is so dramatic that I can’t understand why people are playing politics with this.’
More than 70% of those living in Judea and Samaria voted for parties that now want to abandon them by voting against this directive, Elhayani said.
‘It’s a slap in the face to those voters.’
Did the residents of Judea-Samaria rise in protest against them playing a political game with their lives?
No. They were still crying out against Bennett’s betrayal by sitting with Ra’am in the coalition. I wonder about this – they say that nothing justifies bringing Ra’am into the coalition and I wonder if there is any justification for voting against Jewish legal rights in Judea-Samaria.
I have no idea what Bibi, Smotrich, and Ben Gvir thought would happen. I have the feeling that they were surprised by Bennett’s move. Perhaps I am wrong. I have no inside information. But could any of them predict that Bennett would blink first in the game of “chicken” they declared unilaterally? Knowing the character of the man, perhaps they could have guessed. But is it legitimate to guess when the stakes of the issue were so high?
Would Bibi, Smotrich, and Ben Gvir actually have voted against the Settlement Law? Against their own major voter base? Against themselves in the case of the latter two? To me that is inconceivable.
But Bennett had worked with them. He knew them. And he apparently concluded that they were willing to go through with it in order to pull the government down and bring the fifth election that he had managed to prevent by helping establish this remarkable troublesome coalition.
And so, Bennett blinked first.
He decided that believing/hoping that they might, in the final moment, vote for the Settlement Law was a risk he was not willing to take. The cost, were they to vote against the law again, was a cost he was not willing to have the residents of Judea-Samaria pay. He just could not take the chance.
So he blinked.
And, with the opposition unable to set up an alternative government with Bibi at the head as they attempted to do, new elections had to be called.
And those who were the potential sacrificial pawns in the opposition’s political game cheered. I accept that they are happy the coalition fell, but perhaps they could at least admit that the political game of “chicken” was wrong/dangerous/even more underhanded than politics usually is.