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Op-Ed

With a convert’s zeal, PM takes a precarious perch among global elite in Glasgow

Bennett may feel his trip to the climate conference was an unmitigated success, but there are potential dangers in getting too chummy with the rich and famous

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson chat as they attend an evening reception to mark the opening day of the COP26 UN Climate Summit, in Glasgow, Scotland,  on Monday, November 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, Pool)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson chat as they attend an evening reception to mark the opening day of the COP26 UN Climate Summit, in Glasgow, Scotland, on Monday, November 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, Pool)

Even before passing a budget that was Israel’s first in over three years, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his advisers left the climate summit in Glasgow last week feeling pleased with their trip, and with good reason.

The premier enjoyed a VIP dinner reception at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, where he exchanged views about the importance of fighting climate change with US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and had a conversation with Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge about the importance of enlisting his country’s youth in the effort.

At the COP26 climate conference itself, Bennett met a series of world leaders, presenting himself as a techno-optimist with great faith in the potential for innovation to solve the world’s pressing problems. An adviser called the meetings a “diplomatic tsunami in the best way, rains of blessing.”

In fact, Bennett was something of a star, with world leaders seeking him out for advice on COVID-19 boosters and lockdowns.

Perhaps the most exciting meeting was with billionaire philanthropist and clean energy investor Bill Gates. Bennett seemed especially delighted as Gates spoke about harnessing Israel’s innovative spirit for clean energy and even referred to him as a fellow entrepreneur.

In all, Bennett’s shrewd decision to leverage Israel’s success in fighting the coronavirus to frame it as a country that can come up with solutions for another global challenge seemed to pay off.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks with Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, at a COP26 world leaders reception in Glasgow, October 31, 2021 (GPO)

But amid the self-congratulation and back-slapping, danger lurks for the prime minister.

A conference like COP26, and his newfound zeal for the climate movement in general, hold significant risks for Bennett, and he may need to pay them close attention before continuing on the road he’s embarked upon.

Good COP, Bad COP

However important it was for Israel’s leader to be at the event — and it certainly would not have looked good if he had stayed away — the optics of COP26 were uncomfortable, even beyond Energy Minister Karine Elharrar being kept out of the first day’s session due to a lack of wheelchair access.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett enters the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland, with Energy Minister Karine Elharrar, a day after she was unable to enter because of lack of handicapped accessiblity (courtesy)

Last Sunday, the same day Bennett and his team took off in a charter flight for Glasgow, Israeli consumers were hit with a tax that doubled the price of disposable plastic cutlery and dishes in an attempt to wean the country off of plastic waste. It will likely affect disproportionately the ultra-Orthodox, who have large families and less money to spend on appliances like dishwashers.

More significantly, while Bennett was in Scotland, fuel prices in Israel reached a three-year high, causing a steady rise in food prices. Israelis are being spared from the far more drastic spike in energy prices, and the potential blackouts that Europe could face over the winter, thanks to Israel’s natural gas — a fossil fuel — production offshore, and the fact that Israel relies on renewables far less than Europe does.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett boards the plane at Ben Gurion Airport, heading for the UN climate summit in Glasgow, October 31, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

At the Sunday night VIP welcome event hosted by Prince Charles, the conspicuously unmasked world leaders and royals clutched their drinks and conversed amiably, while staff and waiters hovered in the background with masks firmly in place.

While Bennett and other world leaders pledged to cut carbon emissions and warned of an impending climate emergency, they were joined by CEOs and movie stars who descended on the climate summit in hundreds of private jets. Once in Scotland, their convoys — some numbering dozens of vehicles — emitted even more CO₂ into the atmosphere.

The Israeli team was late in committing to the conference, and was forced to find hotel rooms in Edinburgh, some 47 miles away. Twice a day, Bennett’s motorcade of around ten vehicles — plus local police vans and motorcycles — made the trip between the two Scottish cities.

On top of the very intensive use of fossil fuels to get to Scotland and to move around within the country, the trip wasn’t especially environmentally friendly on the Israel end either. There was no directive from the prime minister for his staff to take public transportation to and from the airport, and they arrived in private cars and taxis.

Congestion on the Ayalon highway, March 30, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

There is no question that logistics were made far more convenient by traveling using non-environmentally friendly means of transportation. But using fossil fuels is more convenient not only for billionaires and government officials. Israelis want to get to work as painlessly as possible, and have a deep love of flying abroad to see the world.

If this government begins asking — or trying to force — Israelis to spend more time on buses and less time on vacation abroad for the environment’s sake, they may start by looking at the choices made by the political and economic elite and asking some difficult questions.

A modern religion

Bennett, Israel’s first Orthodox prime minister, knows how powerful man’s religious impulse can be. Though many young people across the West are turning away from formal religion, there is still a powerful pull toward movements that guide their behavior through immutable moral laws, connect them to ostensible strangers, and give meaning to their actions by casting them as part of an effort to save humanity.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks during a climate strike demonstration of Fridays for Future in Stockholm, Sweden, on October 22, 2021. (Photo by Erik SIMANDER / TT News Agency / AFP) / Sweden OUT

“If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” He lists liberalism, capitalism, nationalism, and Nazism as other examples of “new, natural-law religions” that have replaced traditional religions.

The modern climate movement can be added to that list. Like many God-centered faiths, it divides the world into the virtuous and sinners, preaches an apocalyptic vision of the end of humanity that the virtuous are trying to prevent, and doesn’t have any room for heretics.

It even has its prophets, most prominently Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen who has become the face of the climate movement with her thundering diatribes against world leaders.

Spending the last two weeks in a series of briefings about the climate, Bennett and his team seem to be bona fide converts to the climate movement.

Young Israelis attend a rally against fossil fuels at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, December 18, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

But that zeal might be blinding them to the excesses of a vast movement that seeks to restructure the global economy, and of companies vying for a piece of a multi-trillion dollar pie.

The prime minister and his team would be well served to take a critical look at a movement that has attracted as many profiteers, snake-oil salesmen, and anti-capitalists as any other high-stakes global effort. While many of the experts they come across are entirely sincere and well-meaning, Bennett’s staff could be pulled in directions that run against Israel’s national needs and his own political interests if they are not on the lookout.

From COVID to climate

Bennett wants to make Israel’s forests and rivers less polluted, and intends to harness Israelis’ creativity and experience to lead the world toward a cleaner future. It’s an admirable goal that Israelis from across the political spectrum can get behind.

But in his Glasgow trip, there were signs that, amid the celebrities and talk of last chances for the globe, Bennett was being nudged away from who he has been in his career until this point.

Even as prime minister, he has maintained a man-of-the-people appeal, on full display when he was stuck with his entourage in Washington DC over Shabbat in August and regaled the gathered Israelis with words of Torah before spending a half-hour conversing with the journalists in the dining room. Hobnobbing with billionaires and royals who tsk-tsk ordinary working families for their wasteful ways is a marked departure from that persona.

New Right chairwoman Ayelet Shaked (L) and party No 2. Naftali Bennett speak to reporters in the West Bank settlement of Efrat on July 22, 2019. (Gershon Ellison/Flash90)

Similarly on COVID, Bennett proved himself a pragmatic leader who understands that his job is to balance competing interests and expert advice to forge a prudent path forward for Israel. He stared down health experts pushing for a lockdown and kept the country’s stores and schools open.

Bennett wants to join the climate fight and reach net-zero by 2050, but he also wants to invest heavily in the Israel Defense Forces’ ability to pose a credible threat to Iran’s nuclear program, to continue growing Israel’s economy, and to fill glaring gaps in the country’s health and education systems.

To reach those important goals, it will take the sagacious Bennett who has kept his unwieldy coalition together and the economy moving forward, not a jet-setting celebrity who fits in a bit too well with the world’s elite.

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