Now that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been in office for several months, the time seems ripe to ask how he’s doing. If you ask me, the answer is pretty well under the circumstances.
Bennett has changed the tone in the country. He has a different, more conciliatory style than his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who toward the end was doing everything he could to split the country.
I acknowledge, however, that Netanyahu was a master communicator and had a beautiful command of English. Bennett does not, which is particularly surprising considering that he’s the son of immigrants from San Francisco.
Despite the belief of many Israeli commentators that his English is great, Bennett speaks an almost elementary-school playground style of English, with poor diction and grammar. It comes across as folksy when President Joe Biden speaks it, but it comes across as inarticulate when Bennett does, and it was painful listening to him when he spoke to the United Nations General Assembly last month.
Bennett, who also happens to be Israel’s first Orthodox prime minister, is the unlikeliest of prime ministers. He also heads the unlikeliest of coalition governments and is the leader of one of the Knesset’s smallest parties, the right-wing Yamina faction.
He’s in office thanks to the political wisdom and generosity of his foreign minister, Yair Lapid, a telegenic former television anchorman and newspaper columnist, whose Yesh Atid party controls 17 seats. Lapid agreed to split the prime minister’s roughly four-year term with Bennett and to allow Bennett to go first. Their coalition government is the most diverse in the country’s history – ranging from an Islamist Arab party to Bennett’s own Yamina party.
So what can Bennett accomplish in his roughly two years in office? Basically, he can tackle things on which there is a consensus. He can offer good governance, and for the most part, he is. He took the courageous step in late July to begin a massive COVID-19 booster shot campaign – among the first if not the first in the world.
So far, nearly 3.7 million of the country’s 9 million residents have gotten the third dose in the space of just over two months. And the number of serious COVID cases, which threatened to overwhelm the hospitals due to the more contagious delta variant, is dropping quickly. Israel under Netanyahu was a world leader in its vaccination campaign and that has continued under Bennett. Bennett hasn’t gotten credit from the public for that, if the latest public opinion polls are accurate, but his standing with the public will improve if the fourth wave of the pandemic does subside as predicted.
He has also made the shocking crime wave in Arab communities in the country a priority. Week after week, the news has been filled with stories about Arab citizens killing one another.
And he has set a different tone in relations with the United States and reached out to Democrats as well as Republicans. It’s a welcome shift from Netanyahu’s embrace of the Republican Party and the Christian Evangelical community.
He has made a conscious decision to avoid the Palestinian issue due to the lack of consensus on the matter within his coalition – and due to his own right-wing ideology – and has also convinced the Biden administration to go easy on the issue so as not to undermine his government.
Bennett may not go down in history as a great leader, but if he leaves office having managed the country well and having healed some of the rifts of the past, that’s more than enough for me.
Cliff Savren is a former Ohio resident who covers the Middle East from Ra’anana, Israel. He is an editor at the English edition of Haaretz.