Israelis are enjoying their boring new government. But the calm comes at a price

Naftali Bennett, Israel's prime minister, speaks at the United Nations General Assembly via live stream on Sept. 27. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)
Naftali Bennett, Israel's prime minister, speaks at the United Nations General Assembly via live stream on Sept. 27. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

Naftali Bennett is boring. A hundred days and a bit more into his term, this is the Israeli prime minister’s most attractive quality — and also his most dangerous.

Watch his recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly, for as long as you can stay awake. He showed he can speak fluent American as well as Israel’s former guy, Benjamin Netanyahu. Attempting informality, Bennett tossed in the occasional Netanyahu-esque “my friends”. Like his predecessor, he devoted a large chunk of his time to Iran. He did not, however, hold up visual aids such as a cartoon of a bomb.

Bennett’s delivery was plodding. What an immense relief after 12 years of Netanyahu: The circus is over. A Bennett personality cult is not replacing the cult of Bibi.

The most personal and honest moment was when Bennett described the government he leads as a “political accident”. The most dishonest aspect of the speech was what he left out. He never said the word “Palestinian”. In Bennett’s description, there was no occupation, no conflict with another nationality over a shared homeland. He listed Israel’s peace agreements — from the breakthrough with Egypt 42 years ago to the recent accords with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. Yet his silence about the never-completed peace process with the Palestinians was his loudest statement.

Here, precisely, lies the cost of Bennett’s accidental government: It’s built on the pretense that the Palestinians can be ignored, and that the occupation is irrelevant.

Bennett’s government is indeed bizarre. The coalition runs nearly the entire range from right to left. It includes an Arab party and a finance minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who earlier ran on a platform aimed at disenfranchising Israel’s Arab minority.

Bennett himself leads the Yemina (“Rightward!”) party, which has only six seats (after one member defected) in the 120-member parliament. It ran as an ideological, hard-line alternative to Netanyahu’s supposedly soft Likud party.

Bennett wasn’t always colorless. In fact, he used to be blatantly polarizing. As education minister in a Netanyahu government, he banned speakers from Breaking the Silence — a veterans’ group that gathers soldiers’ testimony about the harsh reality of service in occupied territory — from Israeli schools. He pushed for passage of the anti-democratic Nation State Law, designed to reduce judicial intervention against anti-Arab discrimination.

Yet through four general elections in two years, the most divisive issue in Israel was Netanyahu himself, who increasingly equated himself with the state, who denounced prosecuting him for corruption as “a coup”, and who is now on trial. The strange-bedfellows coalition was the only way to end Netanyahu’s rule. It included the rotation agreement that made Bennett prime minister for two years, to be followed by two years under centrist Yair Lapid, now foreign minister.

As politicians do, Bennett has made a principle out of necessity. He holds his government up as a model of low-key governance and of overcoming “the disease of political polarization”. The government is rife with disagreements, but so far compromises have been made — or often postponed — with remarkably little shouting.

Boredom is indeed appealing. There are days that go by with only an echo of viciousness, and without Netanyahu on the homepages of news sites.

Yet the price for this domestic cease-fire is evading the issues most basic to Israel’s character and future: the ongoing occupation and unsolved conflict with the Palestinians. Lapid insists he is “a devoted supporter of the two-state solution” — and that nothing can be done about it with Bennett as prime minister. This is the quid pro quo for Bennett doing nothing about the “solution” he avidly pushed in the past: annexing Area C, more than half of the West Bank, thereby creating a permanent, de jure one-state reality.

Along with postponing their preferred solutions, the Bennett-Lapid compromise is to “shrink” the conflict by reducing the impact of the occupation on Palestinian daily life. The government will, at last, issue building permits for Palestinians in Area C, and it will take steps to improve the Palestinian economy. In place of self-determination, West Bank Palestinians will get 4G mobile reception.

In reality, the conflict isn’t shrinking, it’s smoldering. An example: The day after Bennett’s U.N. speech, dozens of Israeli settlers rampaged through a Palestinian village in the Hebron Hills, hurling stones, damaging homes and cars, and injuring at least a dozen people, including a 3-year-old boy. In the long-running clashes in the area, the Israeli army has dealt more harshly with left-wing Israelis who come to support the Palestinian villagers than with the violent settlers.

This isn't a bizarre, exceptional case. It's intrinsic to the occupation and the settlement enterprise. Leaving a solution to the next government, possibly four years from now, is like spotting smoke in a dry forest and deciding to deal with it some other time.

The left-wing parties in Bennett’s coalition know that demanding negotiations toward a two-state accord would only bring down the government — and very possibly bring Netanyahu back to power. President Biden and his foreign policy team have apparently reached the same conclusion. Yet a solution cannot wait. This is the danger created by Bennett’s determined boredom. This is Israel’s Catch-2021.

Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist. He is author, most recently of “War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East”. He is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and has written for The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Magazine, among others.

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