Amidst an escalating high-stakes war of words with one of his primary coalition partners, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu finds himself occupying increasingly foreign and disorienting political territory. For most of his career, Benjamin Netanyahu has functioned as the champion, and indeed the darling, of the nationalist camp in Israel. An opponent of concessions to the Palestinians, Bibi was chief heckler to the Oslo accords, high-profile defector from Ariel Sharon’s government in the wake of the retreat from Gaza.
Now, however, thanks to the unloving embrace of the Obama administration, Netanyahu finds himself being forced to take on a host of positions that it is difficult to imagine are really his own. Worse still for him, while Bibi is being forced to play the part of reluctant and unconvincing centrist, all his best lines are going to some fresh faced young starlet: in this case Bennett. Speaking at the annual defense conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, Bennett lambasted the follies of past peace negotiations, and in so doing poured scorn on the current peace efforts of Netanyahu’s government. He pointed to the rise in terrorism against Israelis that has generally accompanied such talks with the Palestinians, dismissing the idea that any of these negotiations would bring about a peaceful two-state solution.
Conceivably, this is a view that Netanyahu himself shares. Yet, he cannot be seen to say such things publicly and so as a result he is unable to draw the political capital from his own base that would come from doing so. That capital is being claimed by Bennett instead.
The issue that has so far sparked the fiercest exchange between Bennett and Bibi has been the latter’s suggestion that Jewish Israelis living in the West Bank would be left behind as a religious minority in a future Palestinian state. It is highly doubtful that Netanyahu has any serious intention of doing any such thing. Rather, this suggestion was almost certainly put out there as a way of exposing the inherent hostility to Jews prevalent among the Palestinians. Bibi knew that his suggestion would be flatly rejected by the Palestinian Authority, thus clarifying their prejudice for all to see.
Yet, for Bennett, whose core constituency are the understandably alarmed Jewish settlers in question, this was a golden opportunity to rally to their defense and denounce Netanyahu’s suggestion. Given that these same people have in the past represented an important legion within Netanyahu’s own faction, with his Likud party list being strongly linked with the settlers and the nationalist camp, Bibi risks having his own people mobilized against him.
Bennett is increasingly looking and sounding more like Netanyahu than Netanyahu. As such, the message from Netanyahu’s office has been clear and uncompromising. Bennett is to apologize and retract his statements, or get out. Polls suggest that Netanyahu is doing exceptionally well with Israeli voters right now, some suggesting that if elections took place tomorrow his Likud-Beiteinu block would gain another fifteen seats in parliament. That said, it seems unlikely that Netanyahu will seek to go it alone and divorce his party from the national religious camp anytime soon. Judging by trends even within Bibi’s own party, the religious Zionist sentiment may well be the future of the Israeli right.
When talks with the Palestinians inevitably fail, with everything that could mean–from Palestinian terrorism to international condemnation–Bibi will want the smooth English-talking and public-relations savvy Bennett on his side. In the meantime, however, Netanyahu has to find a way to avoid becoming an ever more pale stand in for himself, while Bennett is looking more and more like Bibi with each passing day.