MESOP MIDEAST WATCH: „I’M ABSOLUTE RIGHTIST!“- Bennett, in interview blitz, reacts to Netanyahu criticisms

PLaying to his right flank, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett says ‘I oppose a Palestinian state, and I am making it impossible to conduct diplomatic negotiations that might lead to a Palestinian state.’


Mazal Mualem AL MONITOR – January 31, 2022

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made headlines in the print press this weekend, with interviews appearing in all the major political supplements. These interviews, six in all, with all the country’s press outlets ended up providing a treasure trove of important headlines. Apparently, it was all part of a carefully coordinated campaign. Despite his busy schedule at the height of the omicron wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the prime minister devoted hours upon hours to this weekend media blitz.

In each of these interviews, Bennett made a point of accusing his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu of running a well-oiled propaganda effort intended to tarnish his reputation.

In an interview with Maariv, Bennett said, “The man built one of the most effective propaganda machines ever, on an international scale. It is a machine that includes a radio station and a television station, both of which work full time for him. Journalists in his employ, whether they were hired or recruited by him, are producing crude and fake stories on an unprecedented scale, but at least these are real. There are also paid demonstrators, who travel from place to place. They aren’t usually able to corral a crowd of supporters, but they take to the streets with powerful megaphones. They stalk Knesset members from my party and from [Justice Minister] Gideon Saar’s party, and make up stories at such an insane pace that it is hard to keep track. Did you know that yesterday I discovered that my mother is Catholic?”

At the same time, Bennett also gave himself high marks for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. This, despite all the polls showing that people are far from thinking that.

As for the Palestinian issue, Bennett stressed repeatedly that he identifies deeply with the right, even though many in his coalition advocate for a renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians. Some of his coalition partners have already met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

In an interview with Israel Today, long considered Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, Bennett promised, “There will be no Oslo [referring to the Oslo Accord of the 1990s] as long as I am prime minister, and if there is an Oslo, there will be no government. I oppose a Palestinian state, and I am making it impossible to conduct diplomatic negotiations that might lead to a Palestinian state.”

When asked about Iran’s nuclear program, Bennett accused Netanyahu of conducting a scorched earth policy. When asked about his future in the right, Bennett said that a new right-wing nationalist camp under his leadership is being formed in these very days with the goal of replacing the Likud.

The question that really should be asked is why Bennett chose to launch such a concerted promotional campaign in the print press now of all times, almost eight months after he entered the prime minister’s office. It was not some significant date, nor was there any major event to spark it.

Ostensibly, Bennett is assured another year and a half in office as part of his coalition agreement with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. This should allay any fears he might have that his government will collapse and provide him with some sense of confidence. The problem is that Bennett seems to be in a panic. A plea deal with former Prime Minister Netanyahu was being cobbled together behind the scenes, sending tremors through the prime minister’s office. Though the deal was not signed in the end, everything that happened in those tense days offered a glimpse into what the world might look like once Netanyahu actually does exit the political stage.

For Bennett, it is a chilling reality. Netanyahu is the glue that holds this government together. His departure from politics could bring the coalition down. If that happens, Bennett could find himself losing everything. Discussions are already underway behind the scenes to form a new coalition in the current Knesset, led by the person elected to replace Netanyahu as head of the Likud.

And that’s not all. Ever since he entered the coalition, Bennett has lost almost his entire right-wing base. The problem is that he has also failed to win himself a new base. As a candidate, he once declared that once he fills Netanyahu’s shoes, everyone will see that he is the right person for the job. Now that he has filled those shoes, he has been learning every day how unpopular a prime minister he really is. If he hoped that this interview blitz would improve his standing at least somewhat, he was proved wrong, and rather quickly at that. A poll released Jan. 30 by Channel 12 gave him a 4% popularity rating. This was an unprecedented low. There has never been an Israeli prime minister with such a low popularity rating that it approaches zero in its margin of error.

The interview tended to be more complimentary of Bennett. The interviewers treated him with kid gloves and provided him with an enormous platform to address the country. While it may seem like a positive development, in reality, it only shows that Bennett really does have a problem. Despite all the backing he gets from the mainstream media, he is unable to reach the general population and convince them that he is the right person to serve as Israel’s leader. Netanyahu, in contrast, manages to get a 31% favorability rating from the opposition. He has almost total dominance over the right-wing voting bloc. In his case, however, this popularity has no real meaning. As long as Netanyahu is part of the system, the current government receives a steady supply of oxygen from Netanyahu’s opponents. This allows Bennett to stabilize his position.

Since Bennett’s media blitz, it was also learned that there is absolutely no chance of reaching a plea deal with Netanyahu, at least in the immediate future. It is entirely possible that had Bennett known about this decision before he launched his blitz, he would have postponed it until it was more advantageous to him.

With the possibility of a Netanyahu plea deal out of the way, it would seem that the political system is returning to its starting point. Not quite. It is impossible to ignore the prime minister’s unprecedented low ratings, especially after he has been in office long enough to prove that he is worthy of the task.

This is particularly true when it comes to his management of the coronavirus pandemic. Israel is now first place in the world for the percentage of people infected with the omicron variant, and while schools remain open, they are in chaos. It is yet another reason why the current government gets such low marks from the public.

Exacerbating the glaring disappointment with the coalition’s performance is the fact that Bennett was the most outspoken opposition leader to confront Netanyahu during the first waves of the coronavirus over his handling of the pandemic. This won him massive public support at the time, but now he is unable to prove that he can do any better.

If anything, he looks like he is being led along by his education minister, Yifat Shasha-Biton. She not only postponed a vaccination campaign in the schools, she also insisted on keeping schools open at the height of the current omicron wave. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of children stayed home, either sick or in isolation.

Similarly, when it comes to compensation for businesses suffering because of the pandemic, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman seems to ignore the prime minister’s promises, made when he was in the opposition. Instead, Liberman is taking a very high-handed approach to handling the economic effects of the coronavirus, especially as compared to Netanyahu who was much more light-handed when it came to compensation for businesses. This is part of a very different approach to the economy, which is taking a heavy toll on the coalition and the government. Business owners organized protest demonstrations last weekend outside the homes of Lapid and Bennett, demanding that they keep their election promises.

And yet, despite all of the above, Bennett’s seat seems to have stabilized after a rocky period. On the other hand, his political future once he leaves the prime minister’s office is not very promising. If there is any solace at all, it is that his good friend, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with whom he frequently texts, is also facing an all-time low in popularity.

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