The Jerusalem Post
Balfour Street is waiting for Bennett
The cars would show up late at night, each time a different make and model. It was June 1996, seven months after Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated, and just days after Benjamin Netanyahu had surprised Israel and the world by defeating Shimon Peres with less than 30,000 votes, becoming Israel’s new prime minister
Until then, Netanyahu had served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, opposition leader, and deputy foreign minister. He had never been a minister, had never sat in the security cabinet. A proper prime ministerial transition was needed.
The problem is that unlike the United States – where the election is held in November and a new president takes office in January leaving plenty of time to learn the role – here there is an election, then coalition talks, and then a government is sworn in. There is no builtin time before the new leader takes office to sit and review the most sensitive matters that are known only to prime ministers.
If a transition happens, it needs to happen only after the old prime minister has left and the new prime minister has come in.
A few days after his stunning defeat, Peres was already back at work in a new office in Tel Aviv. He remained head of the Labor Party, and was now also the new leader of the Opposition. One day he called his close confidant Yona Bartal into his office and asked her to make plans for a series of secret meetings he would be holding in Jerusalem.
It was not an unusual request. Over the years, Peres regularly organized secret meetings with Palestinians or Arab officials from countries with which Israel did not have formal diplomatic relations.
“Where are we going?” Bartal asked her boss.
“To Balfour,” Peres responded, referring to the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.
In total, there were four meetings. To each one, Peres arrived in a different car to hide the rendezvous from the press as well as from his fellow Labor Party members.
Peres and Netanyahu sat for hours at a time. They discussed everything – the written and unwritten agreements Israel had at the time with the Palestinians, discreet relations with Arab countries, the depth and secrets of Israel’s alliance with the United States, and more. Everything was on the table, and Peres shared willingly.
As they drove back to Tel Aviv from Balfour one time, Bartal warned Peres that if members of Labor found out about his rendezvous with Netanyahu, they would kick him out of the party. It could, she warned, be the end of his political career: the party was still in mourning from Rabin’s assassination, and many of its members blamed it on Netanyahu, whom they accused of leading the campaign of incitement against their murdered leader.
Peres dismissed the warning. “The country comes first, the party comes second and only then you,” he answered.
It was a lesson for life that Peres put into practice. The future president understood that there was something greater than his own personal grievance. There was a country that needed to be managed, and a people who needed to stay safe. If he could help a new prime minister succeed in his job, Peres would be there, ignoring the potential political price.
THIS IS important to keep in mind after Benjamin Netanyahu spent a mere 30 minutes with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday, when the Yamina leader moved into the Prime Minister’s Office. Twelve consecutive years Netanyahu served as prime minister, and 30 minutes was all that he could dedicate to his successor. Not a minute more.
If this weren’t negligent and irresponsible, it might be funny. But it isn’t funny. Israel is a country that faces unique challenges, and no one knows them better than the outgoing prime minister.
There are meetings that do not have protocols – think about the secret trip Netanyahu made to Saudi Arabi in November to meet with the crown prince – or understandings he might have with a world leader regarding an ongoing Mossad operation or some other clandestine mission. Netanyahu himself admitted a number of years ago that there were some things that were so sensitive he kept them from the IDF chief of staff and the national security adviser.
To spend just 30 minutes on any of this is an insult not just to the incoming prime minister, but to the people of Israel whom a prime minister serves.
And this is exactly why legislation to create term limits in Israel is so important and needs to be passed by the new government. Netanyahu, over time, became confused.
Like Louis XIV who famously declared “L’état, c’est moi” (I am the state), Netanyahu also began to believe that he is above all laws and norms, and that the generosity shown to him by Peres and later by Ehud Olmert did not apply to him and his transition from power.
It is this same attitude that can still be seen at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem – Netanyahu is no longer prime minister, but he is still living there. Why? Because there is no one who is willing to tell him that he needs to leave. There is no clear protocol, and therefore there is no real way right now to force him out.
This is ridiculous. Never mind that Netanyahu owns three other homes, two in Jerusalem and one in Caesarea. Does anyone imagine a scenario where the president of the United States refuses to vacate the White House after a new president takes office? Would something like this happen at the Élysée Palace in Paris?
While Bennett might think that he is being gracious to Netanyahu by giving him time to vacate the house, he is actually playing into the former prime minister’s hands.
While this might seem petty, it is not.
Balfour is a symbol no less than the chair Bennett now sits on in the Knesset, or the large wooden desk he now sits behind in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Being prime minister is not just holding the title and filling the position. It is a role that also carries with it great symbolism. When people see someone in that chair working on their behalf, it gives them confidence and a sense of security, both important for the function of a society; when there is a feeling that someone is at the helm and in control of the state, that same state has a better chance of staying under control.
That is why Netanyahu needs to leave Balfour immediately. Whether Bennett decides to move his family there – and there is a legitimate argument to make that his four young children should continue their studies in their hometown of Ra’anana – he does need to hold functions at Balfour, to spend some nights there, and to begin using the official residence to execute his official duties. It is part of the job.
The truth though is that Bennett has much bigger problems to worry about than where he is going to spend the night. While the flag march went quietly on Tuesday, it was just the first minefield that Netanyahu placed in the path of the new prime minister. There are more to come.
The fact that the IDF had to deploy additional Iron Dome batteries ahead of the march out of concern that rockets would be fired from the Gaza Strip illustrates how fragile the ceasefire is that was obtained just a few weeks ago. No one knows for certain how long the quiet will hold, and with arson balloons already flying across the border, it is a likely sign that a hot summer is ahead along Israel’s southern front.
In the weeks to come, there is also a chance that Bennett will fly to Washington for his first meeting with President Joe Biden. The Americans have already indicated that they are looking forward to working with Bennett, as evidenced by the quick phone call that Biden placed – a mere two hours after Bennett’s swearing in – to congratulate the new prime minister. Earlier this year, it took Biden almost a month to call Netanyahu after his own inauguration in Washington,
The Americans know what they are doing, and the affection they are showing and will still show Bennett stems from three reasons. The first is to make it clear that they did not like Netanyahu. This was no secret, and Netanyahu himself illustrated why there was hostility when he revealed confidential conversations he had with top US officials during his speech at the Knesset on Sunday, all part of an attempt to attack and weaken Bennett.
The second reason was to show Israelis that the US’s problem was Netanyahu and not
Israel. Israel, Biden was saying in the quick phone call, is a close ally. It was Netanyahu, the man who fought bitterly with Barack Obama, who soured those relations.
Finally, the Biden administration wants to try to get Bennett over to its side on the big challenges ahead: a possible return to the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, and a renewed effort that might come soon to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
This will not be a simple terrain to traverse. On the one hand, Bennett has an interest in showing Israelis that he can successfully manage the country’s most strategic and intimate alliance without tension and public disagreements. That is important for Israel as well as for Bennett’s own future political career.
But he will also need to stand strong against what the government perceives as dangerous moves. With Netanyahu on the sidelines breathing down this government’s neck, there will be a constant layer of pressure that Bennett and Yair Lapid will have to learn to ignore, no matter the noise and potential political price.
What can make a difference are two approaches that both Washington and Jerusalem can take to one another in their talks.
Bennett should firstly not wait for the Biden administration to roll out its own plan for the Palestinians – he should take the initiative and draft one of his own. In addition, the Biden administration would be smart to know that it cannot push too hard, unless it wants this new government to implode prematurely. It will have to tread carefully.
Where a collision will likely happen is on Iran. Bennett and Lapid are not that different than Netanyahu in their opposition to a return to the JCPOA without new and sharper restrictions.
Where they can be different though is in how they manage this disagreement with the administration. Do they fight publicly with the US president and further deteriorate ties with the Democratic Party? Or do they try to reach understandings that can strengthen the relationship while safeguarding Israeli security interests for years to come?
It will not be simple.