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What Naftali Bennett must do to become Israel's next Prime Minister

NAFTALI BENNETT – his character holds a truly promising advantage: he doesn’t h

‘Polls are like perfume,” said once Shimon Peres, “they are good to smell but bad to drink.”

This priceless insight was not Peres’s intuition, but his experience, aving lost multiple elections that polls claimed he would win.

Naftali Bennett must bear this in mind as he basks in Channel 12’s poll this week, which suggested that if elections were held today, the former defense minister would win 23 seats, a mere three less than his archrival, former boss and alter ego, Benjamin Netanyahu.Now, as the two’s confrontation steadily approaches, Bennett must consider what to do and what not to do, so his growing popularity does not evaporate by the day of its ultimate test.BENNETT’S SUCCESS is, for now, less a statement about him than about Netanyahu. Bennett appeals to his new following not because of who he is, but because of who he is not.Bennett’s biggest electoral asset right now is his stint as defense minister. Though it lasted hardly half a year, it helped him get rid of his image as a frivolous, superficial and sloganeering summer-camp counselor, and recast him as a serious, unconventional and enterprising manager.
Having invested himself at the time in battling the pandemic, he proved to possess all the businesslike impartiality and willingness to delegate that Netanyahu failed to display.
Netanyahu’s failure to let the IDF lead the war on the plague, despite its possession of all the resources and plans this task requires, made many believe he was driven by alien agendas. Netanyahu evidently feared that deploying the IDF would give Bennett too much visibility.
Bennett’s request after the last general election to become health minister, and Netanyahu’s refusal to heed that very reasonable offer, enhanced the impression that Netanyahu’s conduct is vindictive and cowardly, while Bennett’s is impersonal and patriotic.
Netanyahu’s subsequent failure to assign the plague’s management to the IDF even after Bennett’s succession by Benny Gantz, bolstered the suspicion that his considerations were personal rather than systemic, and thus further boosted Bennett’s popularity.
All this produced the second asset Bennett now wields, which is the image of a hounded underdog.
Beyond these circumstantial assets, Bennett’s character holds a truly promising advantage: he doesn’t hate. Netanyahu hates. He was raised by a bitter father who felt he was rejected by Israeli academia, and compelled to move abroad, due to his right-wing views and his past as Vladimir Jabotinsky’s aide.
With or without connection to this history, Netanyahu-the-son habitually speaks divisively, reviling judges, journalists, cops and demonstrators as “the Left.”
Bennett’s parents, products of postwar San Francisco, were removed from the kind of political acrimony that animated Netanyahu’s upbringing. With or without connection to his Californian roots, Bennett never speaks hatred: not about the Left, not about the courts, not about the press, or the academics, or the Arab politicians with whom he disagrees. That is why no one hates Bennett.
Considering where this society has arrived, this disposition is the most crucial asset Bennett brings as his prime ministerial contention matures. Israeli society needs dialogue, appeasement, listening and healing, and these will never be delivered by someone laden with hate.
Then again, with all due respect to his managerial skills and amicable personality, Bennett’s leadership bid will crash if he doesn’t assemble a powerful list of Knesset candidates and present a post-Netanyahu era’s vision and plan.
TO WIN a general election Bennett must produce a varied list of impressive candidates, the way Yair Lapid did when he brought together an eclectic collection of academics, mayors, social activists, rabbis, generals, police and Mossad veterans and others.
Before enlisting this team Bennett must present a platform for social reconciliation and national reconstruction. Yes, he has come to be identified with a quest for efficient administration and impartial government. That’s important but far from enough.
People need to know what his plans are for treating the deficits the plague has dug, for rehabilitating the businesses it has debilitated, for overhauling the medical system it has challenged, for reforming the education system whose ailments he failed to cure as education minister, and the list goes on.
The need to display a vision for a post-Netanyahu era begins with the prospective leader’s personal conduct. Fortunately, Bennett lacks Netanyahu’s weakness for luxuries. Unfortunately, he, too, talks too much about himself (“as an officer in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, I” whatever) and has a weakness for the camera, the microphone and the limelight.
Israel has had an overdose of charisma in recent years. What it now needs is the kind of modesty with which the unassuming but very practical Levi Eshkol and Yitzhak Shamir succeeded David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin.
Beyond humility, to win two dozen Knesset seats Bennett must rise above the nationalist rigidity and religious Orthodoxy that confined his political emergence.
Talking annexation, as Netanyahu did before the last election, didn’t work for Netanyahu then and won’t work for Bennett now. Conversely, if Bennett launches a dialogue with Arab leaders – say, the mayors of Nazareth, Sakhnin and Shfaram – he will show he can transcend his sectarian origins.
The same goes for religion. Back when he established Yamina, this column warned (“The gospel according to Naftali,” 18 January 2019) that Bennett’s gambit would fail – as it indeed did – because he presented no new idea.
Bennett ignored that column’s offer that he discuss publicly the rabbinical politics he evidently detested, and that he openly espouse religious pluralism, not as a political compromise but as a Jewish value. Such an attitude would make Bennett the champion of the traditionalist mainstream, which is neither secular nor Orthodox, and inspire the rise of a new movement, “The Israeli Home.”
Twenty months and three electoral setbacks later, that offer still stands

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