Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought shame on the country and himself last week when he refused to acknowledge the presence of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a farewell event for outgoing Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Nadav Argaman.
One trait that has been a key to Israel’s success – in contrast to some of the other states in the region – is that we have a rule of law and democracy. A key part of democracy is not just the peaceful transition of power, but also the respect given to institutions. Unfortunately, during his decade in power, Netanyahu sought to hollow out and undermine institutions.
During the event on Thursday night, Netanyahu acted as if Bennett was not present. When it became apparent what Netanyahu was doing, some of those present yelled out to the opposition leader that there was a prime minister present and that Netanyahu should acknowledge the fact.
“The jarring and unstatesmanlike incident at the event was a shame,” wrote the prime minister. “I was not the only one who shifted uncomfortably in his seat. I hope that the leader of the opposition will understand that political disagreements are natural; arguments are part of life. But undermining the legitimacy of an Israeli government is something dangerous.”
Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, September 5, 2021. (credit: SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/POOL VIA REUTERS)
However distasteful Netanyahu’s stunt, it was not surprising. Netanyahu and his supporters have systematically sought to undermine the new government. As an opposition, some of these attempts are legitimate and within the realm of politics. But there has also been an attempt, as exemplified by Netanyahu’s snub, to make it seem like the current government does not exist.
Netanyahu has said many times that Bennett is not a real prime minister. Some of his supporters have mocked Bennett for his party having only a few seats in the Knesset, and claim that he somehow stole votes by accepting a coalition with centrist and left-leaning parties.
This is ironic, of course, coming from the Netanyahu camp, when it was the former prime minister who has consistently brought left-wing parties into his governments from Kadima to Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua to Ehud Barak’s Labor. It was Netanyahu who paved the way for a coalition with the Arab party, Ra’am, opening the door for Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid to later make a deal of their own with its leader, Mansour Abbas.
Bennett is right to say that the former prime minister is going beyond politics. He is also correct to note that it is one thing to disagree about policy but another to undermine the legitimacy of a government in Israel. This tactic is especially dangerous and is magnified by the forum during which Netanyahu chose to put his contempt for Bennett on display. Security services are supposed to be above politics and their events are supposed to be non-partisan.
While Israel has a carefully balanced system of government, we have seen rising attacks in recent years by our elected representatives against the criminal justice system.
We saw during the Gaza war in May how Arab-Israelis took the law into their own hands, sparking sectarian violence not seen in Israel in decades. We saw men with rifles coming from the West Bank to support Jewish communities in Lod, when the authorities claimed the city had fallen into chaos, and we saw instances of Arab gangs in Lod and Jaffa firing guns in the air. We have seen the Negev slip into chaos, where Bedouin take the law into their own hands, rob army bases and steal land from public coffers. We have seen too often how religious extremists have ignored public health guidelines during the ongoing corona pandemic, and the horrors of the Meron Lag Ba’omer tragedy and the ongoing attempts to derail the state investigation.
Bennett is tasked with trying to restore a working government with strong institutions. It is understandable that not everyone in Israel will support his premiership, but they should accept that he is the prime minister.
Undermining his rule undermines Israel’s democratic character. If Netanyahu truly loves this country as he says he does, he will respect the institution of the prime minister even if his rival is currently occupying that office.
This is about Israel and the Jewish people, and Netanyahu should put pettiness aside.