The Jerusalem Post
Lapid to take lead over Bennett on foreign ties
Alternate prime minister lays out agenda to improve relations with Jordan, Democrats
Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid is expected to take a leading role in Israel’s international relations, unlike the past 12 years in which the prime minister did so.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett plans to focus on his domestic agenda, at least at first, a source close to the new premier said. Any diplomatic decision or statement Bennett makes will have to be coordinated in advance with Lapid because of the delicate rotation government they formed on Sunday.
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu led Israel’s foreign policy throughout his time in office, often keeping key information from the Foreign
Ministry. He also served as foreign minister at the same time as prime minister in 2012 and 2015-2019.
In his transition ceremony with former foreign minister
Gabi Ashkenazi on Monday, Lapid said the Foreign Ministry would be in charge of normalizing relations between Israel and Arab states, following last year’s Abraham Accords.
“Great things have happened this past year,” he said. “We need to continue the development that started with the Abraham Accords, to work to strengthen the peace with the Gulf States, with Egypt and with Jordan. We will work to sign agreements with more countries in the region and beyond. It’s a process; it won’t happen in a day. But the Foreign Ministry will coordinate those efforts.”
Netanyahu did not inform Ashkenazi until moments before the announcement that
the formation of a new government on Sunday and ruled out having haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties join it.
Reaching out to rebel Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, Liberman said the anti-Netanyahu protests he helped lead were successful.
Avidar refused a cabinet post as a second minister under Liberman in the Finance Ministry.
Ra’am Party (United Arab List) head Mansour Abbas on Monday reaffirmed his party’s commitment to serve as a full one, however, is that the prime minister was politically strong inside the cabinet. Eshkol commanded 45 seats, Peres and Shamir had 44 and 41, respectively, and Netanyahu had 31 as head of Likud-Yisrael Beytenu.
The situation in the current government, however, is reversed, with the prime minister not representing the largest or second-largest party in the government, but rather tied for fifth out of eight parties.
Beyond the question of public legitimacy for a man with only six seats to serve as prime minister, there is another question altogether: How does he command the respect of his colleagues around the cabinet table whose parties are bigger than his.
Shortly after the election, when talk first emerged that Bennett may enter into a rotation agreement with Lapid in which he would serve first as prime minister, Yair Golan of Meretz, a party with as many seats (six) as Bennett now controls in the Knesset, asked why Bennett should rotate as prime minister and not someone from his own party.
Or put yourself in Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s shoes. Here’s a former chief of staff whose Blue and White Party polled 33 seats just a year ago, who could have been prime minister had Benjamin Netanyahu honored his agreement with him, and whose eight seats is one more than the amount Yamina won in the last election. He could be excused for thinking: “Where does Bennett get off now giving me directives?”
That sentiment is undoubtedly going through the minds of the heads of Yesh Atid (17 seats), Labor (seven) and Yisrael Beytenu (seven) in the current coalition: By what right does he have to be sitting at the head of the table when he has fewer seats, or the same amount, as they do?
To succeed, Bennett needs to overcome that mind-set.
On Sunday and Monday – in the Knesset for the swearing-in ceremony and at the President’s Residence for the “class picture” – this disparate cabinet was all smiles and hopes. But as soon as reality sets in, which it will do very soon, those sitting around the table are sure to wonder why, with a faction now commanding only six reliable votes, is Bennett calling the shots?
Bennett woke up Monday morning with an enormous burden on his shoulders. But to be able to get anything done in the two years he has been allotted as prime minister, he will need to win the respect and get the cooperation of the other 26 ministers around the table.
How can he do that?
The easiest way is through success. But to succeed he will need their cooperation. The best way for him to earn that cooperation is to work together with them, something that Netanyahu was not known for.
He needs to hold regular meetings with each one of his ministers, get to know their top staff, take an interest in the ministries and their plans.
This type of style would serve two purposes: It sends a message that he has come to work; that he is there to manage the workings of the government, not lord over it. These types of regular meetings also would provide him with an opportunity to keep his finger on the pulse.
In this government of 61 – it wasn’t even sworn in with a full complement of 61 votes, but rather 60-59 – it is only as strong as its weakest link. So Bennett, in his role as team leader, needs to keep abreast of what is going on, what is making the ministers uncomfortable, and where the potential pitfalls are.
These types of meetings – again, meetings Netanyahu was not known for – will provide Bennett with valuable information about what is going on inside his unorthodox government.
One of the biggest criticisms of Netanyahu’s last few years was that the government was just not managed well and that the country was plagued by a lack of good governance. One of the biggest selling points of the current government is that the ministers are “coming to work” to manage the ministries they are controlling.
That mind-set was apparent in the text of the speech Bennett delivered to the Knesset on Sunday. His was not a visionary speech, not one of a grand vision for peace or Israel’s place in the Middle East; rather, he presented a work plan – this is what the new government plans to do for the country: A, B and C.
And if Bennett keeps to that script, he could win the respect of his colleagues. If he keeps to the script of being a good manager, the “prime manager,” he will get and keep their cooperation.
His job now is to conduct the orchestra that is this cabinet according to sheet music agreed upon by all the different members of the symphony. It is not to come in with an original score of his own and try to impose it on an orchestra made up of different musicians with wildly different tastes in music.
Bennett needs to demonstrate through actions to his cabinet that he is there in the capacity as a manager, not someone trying to play politics, score political points, or foist his world view – a world view that is in the minority in this government – upon them.
He can also win their respect by sharing the credit and making sure he makes each party in the coalition feel that it matters and that their voice is important and being heard. He will win their respect by saying, “We,” not “I,” as he did during Sunday’s speech in the Knesset, thanking Foreign Minister Yair Lapid by name for showing “national responsibility, political generosity, and without whom we would not be here today.”
This is a managerial style in stark contrast with what the country has become accustomed to under Netanyahu, where the perception he created was that he brought the coronavirus vaccines to Israel and defeated the pandemic, that he charted the Abraham Accords, that he was responsible for the country’s dramatic economic turnaround. He was never known as someone especially fond of sharing the credit.
In Netanyahu’s government, it was largely about him. For Bennett to succeed, he will need to ensure that it is not about him, but rather that he is part of a whole, a team effort.
Otherwise – if the government does become about Bennett, if the government is viewed by his ministerial colleagues as a tool for his self-aggrandizement – it will arouse feelings in them about why he is prime minister, even though he only commands the allegiance of five other MKs. And those feelings of resentment, if acted upon, would doom this particular government. •