WASHINGTON (JTA) — He left office after one of the shortest terms of any prime minister in Israeli history and doesn’t have an active political party.
But just 10 months after stepping down from Israel’s highest position, and amid historic upheaval in Israel, Naftali Bennett is signaling that he’s ready to run again.
Bennett, formerly seen as a hardline right-wing politician, upended Israeli politics in 2021 by leading an ideologically diverse coalition that unseated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 straight years in office. But when Bennett’s coalition fell apart after about a year, he stepped down and Netanyahu won the subsequent election.
Now, far from home, Bennett is taking the public stage. On a visit to Washington, DC, this week, Bennett spoke at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — a go-to destination for prominent Israeli politicians visiting the United States — took questions from reporters and met with a group of Democratic lawmakers. In a photo from that visit, Bennett appeared in his element, explaining something to the group as a crowded room looks on.
“Today in a series of meetings with congressmen and congresswomen on the Hill as well as government officials,” he tweeted in Hebrew along with the photo. “It begins.”
What is beginning is not clear. Bennett wouldn’t answer a question about whether he will run again, and a spokeswoman did not respond to a request to elaborate. But his social media feed suggests that he’s missing being prime minister, and in remarks to reporters on Tuesday it sounded like he might shoot for the office again.
“I’ve become a huge believer that we need moderacy in the way we govern Israel for the next 10 years,” he said at a meeting organized by the Washington Institute, calling himself a “radical moderate.”
“I believe that Israel, for the next decade or two, we need centrist governments that can focus on 70 percent of the issues that Israelis agree upon, and setting aside that 30% of issues that are in ideological conflict,” Bennett said, repeating a formula he’s often used to describe his governing philosophy. “I think it’s the only way forward for the next 10 to 20 years. We have to pull ourselves out of this ongoing polarization and toxic dialogue. And I believe Israel can succeed by doing that.”
In another tweet, he noted polls showing him winning eight seats in Israel’s parliament were he to return to politics — more than the seven seats his former party, Yamina, won in 2021, before he became prime minister.
On Monday, the eve of Yom Hashoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, he posted a speech he delivered as prime minister last year, in which he extolled the virtue of Israel “relying only on ourselves to be strong, and to never apologize for our existence.”
Last week, prior to embarking on his stateside visit, he posted a Twitter thread favorably comparing his performance with Netanyahu’s. “As long as I can remember, I have taken responsibility,” he wrote, accusing Netanyahu and his top advisors of peddling “blame and excuses.” And in a video posted about a week earlier, marking the 100th day of Netanyahu’s current government, he touted the record of his coalition in its first 100 days last year, tweeting, “Something different is possible.” That tweet is now pinned to the top of his feed.
אנחנו מציינים כעת 100 ימים לממשלת נתניהו.
הנה מה שממשלת בנט הספיקה ב-100 הימים הראשונים שלה.
אפשר אחרת. pic.twitter.com/CChfzOsBo0
— Naftali Bennett בנט (@naftalibennett) April 3, 2023
Netanyahu’s coalition has proposed a far-reaching overhaul of Israel’s judiciary that would sap the Supreme Court of much of its power, and which has spurred unprecedented street protests. Part of his mission in the United States, Bennett said at the Washington Institute meeting, was to push back against perceptions that the turmoil was weakening Israel.
“I see that our enemies believe that the protests are a sign of weakness,” Bennett said. “They are misinterpreting what Israel is about. This is a sign of strength, democracy in Israel will prevail, and Israel will come out stronger for all.”
However enthusiastic he may be, Bennett could have a long road to a comeback after emerging battered from his brief time as prime minister. For more than a decade, he had been a leading politician in the pro-settler camp, vehemently opposed to Palestinian statehood and seen as a right-wing influence on Netanyahu. For years, the two men worked together despite personal acrimony between them, but in 2021, Bennett took his party, whose name translated to “rightward” in English, and partnered with a motley crew of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties, as well as an Islamist party.
Bennett’s former right-wing allies portrayed that decision as a betrayal, and multiple members of his own party defected, depriving his coalition of a parliamentary majority and leading to new elections. Bennett didn’t run and handed the prime ministership to his centrist coalition partner, Yair Lapid, who lost to Netanyahu last fall.
Lapid, who is now leader of the parliamentary opposition, appears to be getting a second wind from the massive anti-government protests. A recent poll asking Israelis for their preferred prime minister showed him running neck and neck with Netanyahu. Another centrist politician, Benny Gantz, got even higher marks.
This poll didn’t ask about Bennett.