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Israel’s Bennett Considered Weak and Uncharismatic by Arab World, Says Expert
Naftali Bennett at his desk in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom /GPO)

Israel’s Bennett Considered Weak and Uncharismatic by Arab World, Says Expert

In general, however, the region expects much of the same from Netanyahu's former ally and successor

After more than a decade under Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel has a new prime minister: Naftali Bennett. Netanyahu’s years in power have been extremely significant for Israel’s relations with the Arab world. Most notably, with the aid of former US President Donald Trump, Netanyahu signed normalization agreements with four Arab and African countries, after more than two decades of stagnation between the sides.

Bennett, head of the right-wing Yamina party, has been a part of Israel’s political system for 15 years, but his regional and international presence has been relatively minor. Now, the Arab world, which has complicated relations with Israel, is crafting its image of Israel’s new premier.

The Qatari-based media giant Al Jazeera published an article this week about Bennett, calling him “Netanyahu’s student.” The article took note of that fact that Bennett is the first prime minister to come from what Al Jazeera called “the hard-line religious right,” and said that he is “one of the strongest opponents to the founding of a Palestinian state.” The article also mentioned Bennett’s success in the high-tech sector, where he was CEO of two software technology companies that each sold for tens of millions of dollars.

The Saudi-financed Al Arabiya news website notably does not mention Bennett’s position on the Palestinian-Israel conflict. In an article that can almost be called flattering, Al Arabiya tells of the new premier’s success in business, his background in Israel’s elite military forces, and his various political exploits in recent years.

Both rival media giants mention Bennett’s relative liberalism concerning religious matters, saying that he has little interest in matters of church and state, and taking note of the fact that he shakes women’s hands. Al Jazeera adds that he has liberal ideas, especially regarding the LGBTQ community. Al Arabiya, alternatively, points to the fact that Bennett’s wife doesn’t cover her hair.

We don’t think that Bennett can fill the vacuum of Netanyahu or succeed in establishing strong influence in many international capitals

Oraib Al Rantawi, founder and director general of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman, told The Media Line, in light of the recent political upheaval in Israel, that “first of all I think there is a deep feeling of relief, among most of the Arab countries – especially in Palestine and Jordan – at seeing Netanyahu depart.”

In terms of how Bennett is viewed in the Arab world, Rantawi says that “what matters is specifically what is his approach [to the Palestinian-Israel conflict]. He’s in the far-right camp.” Bennett, he adds, is seen as opposing the two-state solution and a Palestinian state, as well as supporting Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This, and statements perceived as hawkish in the past, have built his image as a hard-line leader in Arab eyes, which Rantawi calls a cause for pessimism.

At the same time Bennett is seen as a weak leader, lacking the international status and personal charisma to rival Netanyahu, Rantawi says.

“Knowing that [in] this government, the prime minister has no charismatic personality, no connection with the international scene – this will make it easier to counter the Israeli narrative. Especially in the US decision-making institutions. We don’t think that Bennett can fill the vacuum of Netanyahu or succeed in establishing strong influence in many international capitals. Not only in Washington and European countries, but also with Russia,” he said.

Rantawi added that “we should bear in mind that Arab countries are not reacting the same way to this issue.” In many countries, for example, there is little to no interest in the identity of the Israeli prime minister.

“Some countries… are not happy to see Netanyahu depart the scene. Especially the Emiratis, and the Saudis to a certain extent,” he also said. “For them, Netanyahu, together with Donald Trump, was a strong ally” regionally and, most notably, against a mutual enemy, Iran. Others, such as the Jordanians and the Palestinians, and what has been termed The Resistance Axis – Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, are happy.

Dr. Marwa Maziad, a non-resident scholar in the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Institute’s Defense and Security Program, as well as a senior fellow at the American University’s Center for Israel Studies in Washington, D.C., said that people in the Arab world expect Israel’s policies to remain the same under Bennett. “Many Arab voices in the media are saying that Bennett and his partners will be a continuation of the same policies. And rightly so, because Netanyahu’s legacies will outlast his presence as prime minister,” Maziad told The Media Line.

Maziad believes that Bennett will look to further relations with the Arab world and can be expected to have some degree of success. “Bennett stated that he welcomed the Abraham Accords. Biden also agrees with this bold move by the Trump administration. So, there might even be a Bennett-Biden interest in further fostering relations with more Arab countries in order to cement this achievement in Arab-Israel relations and give it their own names,” she said.

Many Arab voices in the media are saying that Bennett and his partners will be a continuation of the same policies. And rightly so, because Netanyahu’s legacies will outlast his presence as prime minister

Dr. Edy Cohen, an expert on the Arab world at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, follows the Arab social media arena closely. At present, “there’s no clear picture of how he [Bennett] is perceived,” Cohen told The Media Line.

Cohen also differentiates between different segments of the Arab world. “The Qatar-Hamas-Iran bloc, they are attacking Bennett,” he said, adding: “For them, it doesn’t matter who leads the government, it’s all the same.”

“The Gulf states have gotten used to Netanyahu, they know what Netanyahu thinks, what he thinks about the Iranians … they like Netanyahu,” Cohen said. So, people in the Gulf states are waiting to see Bennett’s policy and conduct regarding key regional issues – with Iran, again, at the top of the list – before deciding what they think of him.

Cohen agrees that the new premier definitely looks weak in the region. “Bennett just barely survives, barely gets approved,” he said, pointing to the vote on the new government on Sunday, which was approved 60 votes to 59 votes.

Cohen says that on the Arab Street, for example in Egypt, both Netanyahu and Bennett are hated. He adds that since Bennett “wears a kippah and that symbolizes being more Jewish, Bennett will be more hated, in my opinion,” because he is more visibly Jewish.

The new government notably includes an Arab Israeli minister from the left-wing Meretz party and an Arab Israeli party, the Islamist Ra’am-United Arab List, headed by Mansour Abbas. While this may be seen as something that would help ease relations between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors, Rantawi believes it will have little to no influence. As the coalition agreements – and hence the government – deal only with civic issues affecting Arab Israelis, and national Palestinian issues are completely absent, he expects that it will not be enough to change the dynamics in the region.

Maziad points out that “the very participation of Mansour Abbas renders Arab affairs domestic as any given minority in any given country,” which can be perceived as a possible blow to Palestinian nationalism. With this complexity in mind, she says that “some Arabs and many Palestinians look at the very participation of the Islamist Ra’am with great suspicion.” What may be viewed as a sign of coexistence, therefore, may not necessarily be seen as such throughout the region.

Not only is this not a cause for growing warmth between the sides, Cohen says that this cooperation is, in fact, a cause for anger in parts of the Arab world. The United Arab List is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a controversial organization in the region. People in the Arab world “are angry that we have included the Muslim Brotherhood in the government,” he says.

 

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