With Naftali Bennett, Things May Fundamentally Change, For the Worse

Photograph Source: U.S. Secretary of Defense – CC BY 2.0

On June 2, 2021 Israeli politician Naftali Bennett, an ultra-right proponent of colonization, signed an agreement making him the Israeli Prime Minister until 2023 after which former Minister of Finance Yair Lapid will assume control until 2025. What this all means in terms of US involvement and the Israeli game plan moving forward is still a bit unclear. Furthermore, what this signals about Middle East policy towards the Palestinians in general, authoritarian structures, and western media treatment, is all yet to be determined.

At a time of incredible activity, the already horrible situation on the ground hopefully does not go from bad to worse. Can Benjamin Netanyahu’s departure be a sign of any tangible improvement whatsoever? Perhaps the minor Islamic-Arab party that eventually joined the anti-Netanyahu coalition suggests this remote possibility, but according to most commentators, the overall decision seems more motivated by a desire to rid Netanyahu more than anything. Jeffrey St. Clair referred to Bennett as the “more viscous and unsparing towards the Palestinians.” He argues that the problem with the Israeli state “is not its peculiarities” but its “apartheid nature.” Tithi Bhattacharya also cited Bennett’s worldview while pointing out: “Let us be clear, no political party in Israel is opposed to the ongoing Nakba, they simply want to negotiate its extent.”

Noam Chomsky indicated to me that he didn’t think the US was involved in the ousting. Chomsky called it a manifestation of an internal Israel problem. The new government he views, is just as right-wing as Netanyahu. Netanyahu, according to Chomsky was hanging on desperately because he’s “facing serious corruption charges, and a lot of his rivals (as rightwing as he is) want to get rid of him, largely for personal reasons.” Richard Falk also commented similarly that the political shift is almost completely about the personality and character of Netanyahu, not any fundamental shift in governmental policy.

Lawrence Davidson also stated that he was not aware of any US role and that it’s most likely the US government under Biden [didn’t take] sides. Davidson reminded me that in his view the new [Israeli] government is “weak and fragmented, and will only last for months rather than years.” Regrettably, Davidson added that in terms of treatment of Palestinians and Iran, there will be no change unless it is for the worse. Davidson fears that if anything, this government especially while Bennett in charge, might be more brutal. Even though it is not an “indefinite one-man show, and less likely to be authoritarian” in the way Netanyahu was, he still warns against a continuation of harsh extremism.

When I asked Richard Falk to comment on the US role in the expelling of Netanyahu he responded by saying that the US Government “while vocal in denouncing leaders of rival countries, is discreet to friends, above all Israel.” Falk maintains that “undoubtedly some private conversations among influential persons in both countries, suggest that sustaining friendly relations would be easier without the belligerent discourse and political style of Netanyahu.” Furthermore, Falk indicated that other Israelis are “as resolutely right-wing but less confrontational [than Netanyahu]. One would suspect, Falk asserts “that the Biden Administration would rather try its luck with a post-Netanyahu leadership.” (No matter what its outlook on such questions as settlements, a state for Palestine, or a nuclear deal with Iran).

In terms of the game plan for the Israeli government moving forward, Falk’s sense is that “it appears that if this so-called center/right coalition headed by Yair Lapid and Naphtali Bennett takes over the leadership of Israel for the next four years, it will not change its position on relations with Occupied Palestine or with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority.” The government will focus on, what Falk describes as an “internal economic agenda, improving secular-religious relations, and promoting closer relations with Arab neighbors by implementing the ‘normalization agreements’ within the Middle East.” Would formal annexed portions of the West Bank be deferred by the Israeli government to avoid friction with the US and Europe moving forward? Falk seems to think so.

One interesting result and topic of this latest transition in leadership is in regards to the restoration of the Iran Nuclear Agreement. Israel here, according to Falk, “will likely offer less opposition than Netanyahu, but [will] seek to exert influence in similar directions, seeking to impose more restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and possibly conditioning the removal of sanctions on Iranian discontinuance of work on precision missile technology or support for Hamas and Hezbollah.”

When I asked Falk about what the new appointment signals to the rest of the world about authoritarianism he remarked that since “Israel is such a special case of a hybrid state, combining an apartheid regime with democratic constitutionalism for the Jewish citizenry of the country, its leadership shift doesn’t signal any wider trend of departure from international authoritarian leadership.” The issue of Palestinian governance is not even part of the main coalition-building conversation, according to Falk.

In terms of the media landscape and the expectations for coverage, Falk imagines that the mainstream media would share much of his assessment, as he states, “giving more emphasis to a less stressful relationship with the US and EU and possibly the UN.” Falk adds that there will likely be “a more hopeful tone about this transition demonstrating Israel’s democratic character” along with more discussion of “Netanyahu’s mixed record during his years in office as the longest serving prime minister, as well as his legacy and recent fall from grace.” Additionally, Falk projects, and I believe accurately, that since “Bennett is known to be more pleasant and diplomatic in style, he will be presented to the public as more compatible with Biden.” Lastly, the media will give greater incentive to the more secular and supposed “moderate” Yair Lapid. In all, with Bennett, Lapid and a right wing consensus in the Knesset in general, nothing will fundamentally change, in regards to Palestine sadly.

Falk’s inferences about the US role in the transition and the media structure’s response are intriguing. Stephen Zunes believes that it is safe to say that the Biden administration is glad Netanyahu is gone and that “some parties might have been more willing to become part of the anti-Netanyahu coalition in order to improve relations with the United States” but he hasn’t observed evidence that the US played any significant direct role in crafting the new coalition. As far as Israeli’s game plan for the coalition government moving forward, Zunes indicated that primarily their aim is “to get the 61 votes they need and then survive for more than a few months.” Chomsky, Davidson, Falk and Zunes all maintain that very little policy, if any, will positively impact the Palestinians. And while Bennett is less abrasive than his mentor, these leading analysts think his actual policies could be even worse.

Zunes makes an interesting parallel for the leadership shift and its ability to signal anything to the rest of the world about authoritarianism. He states that Bennett and Lieberman can be likened to Liz Cheney; a person with extreme views and at least equally dangerous right wing policies compared to Trump, but tired of his corruption and personality cult that drives it forward.

Zunes also suspects that the western media might make the new appointments bigger deals than they actually are, partly because for the Israelis, Bennett does mean an improvement for most. Additionally, from Zune’s perspective, Palestinians have been told that, “in order to end the Israeli occupation and achieve statehood, they may not work through the United Nations, other countries, or global civil society.” The only way forward, according to the Biden administration, Zunes states, “is through direct negotiations with the Israeli government.” Although Biden has made it clear that he will not apply pressure to Israel, Bennett’s own extremism might make it harder for Biden to further display total disregard for issues related to statehood with mounting political awareness of the Palestinian’s plight. With many of these issues and questions, time will only tell.

For now, much of the world remains hopeful and rests on the outside chance that more and more of civil society can apply pressure and “cause some fracturing of [the] status quo consensus on Palestine”; especially if global pressures continue from the increasingly effective Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions Movement (BDS) and the work of the United Nations as “governments and internal tensions in Israeli/Palestinian relations mount,” Falk states.

In the end, it’s important to take note of Bennett’s political psychology. He is known for saying Palestinians should have an “autonomy on steroids” to be exercised for almost half of the West Bank but does so while remaining an uncompromised opponent of a Palestinian state in favor of formal annexation.