How a gambler akin to David Cameron lost to Israel’s smoothest operator

Naftali Bennett thought his early election call was risk-free. But he underestimated Benjamin Netanyahu

November 20, 2018 10:25

It seems that Naftali Bennett takes gambling lessons from David Cameron.

Mr Bennett, leader of Israel’s right-wing Jewish Home party, thought he had placed a risk-free bet to elevate his status and share the limelight with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it turned out that he miscalculated the odds.

Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman left the government last week, taking his Yisrael Beytenu party with him. So Mr Bennett issued a brazen demand: he wanted to fill the newly-vacated Defence Ministry post.

He seemed to be in a win-win situation. If he pulled his party out of the coalition, which has a razor-thin majority now that Yisrael Beiteinu has left, the government would automatically collapse. So, he looked likely to get the Defence Minister post, and if he did not, he would get to fight elections, in which he is expected to gain seats.

He acted with the same confidence as Mr Cameron at that fateful moment when he figured that a Brexit referendum would clearly cement his standing without triggering a decision to leave the EU. But by Monday morning, Mr Bennett was standing at a press conference with his tail between his legs and without the defence post.

While Mr Cameron failed to fully consider how the British public may respond, Mr Bennett failed to fully consider how the PM would respond. He underestimated Mr Netanyahu’s ability to reframe the discussion.

The PM told citizens in a televised address on Sunday that there are security considerations they do not understand. He acknowledged that people were unhappy with the outcome of last week’s Gaza confrontations but intimated that it was part of a calculated plan. And he portrayed himself as acting selflessly for the security of the nation. Mr Bennett, he intimated, was motivated by personal advancement.

Mr Netanyahu often mentions that he is the son of an historian and, true to form, also invoked history. In the days before his speech he told coalition partners that they should avoid the “historic mistake” of 1992, when a right-wing coalition was brought down and the result was a left-wing government that signed the Oslo Accords. This prompted Jewish Home supporters to urge Mr Bennett to stay in the government to stop a feared left-wing electoral victory.

All of this meant that Mr Bennett was outsmarted by the PM. Unless he wanted to be seen as endangering security and the standing of the right, he had little choice but to roll back his threat.

And so, in the very act of avoiding elections, Mr Netanyahu managed to strengthen precisely the image that he wants to set to voters as soon as elections are actually called: as the smoothest operator in Israeli politics.

November 20, 2018 10:25

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