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The New Israeli Leader's Game Plan: Charm And Muddling Through

President Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House on Friday.
President Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House on Friday.

Updated August 30, 2021 at 8:41 PM ET

Jerusalem correspondent Daniel Estrin traveled with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and reported this story from Washington.

Israel's new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, was unexpectedly marooned last Friday night in the Willard InterContinental hotel in Washington, D.C., sharing Bible stories and anecdotes about his sudden rise to power around a hastily prepared salmon buffet.

"Two years ago, I don't know if you know, but I didn't make the threshold. Did you hear about that?" said Bennett, 49, referencing his well-known failure to enter parliament in the April 2019 elections. "Everyone was depressed about it. I didn't take it to heart. I said, 'fine.' I asked the people around me, 'give me feedback,' to put it nicely. 'At least let's learn lessons.' The other thing I did twice was read the Book of Samuel."

Hours earlier, Bennett was the first foreign leader to visit President Biden since the U.S. began its painful final departure from Afghanistan. The carnage outside Kabul's airport had postponed their Oval Office meeting by a day, leaving Bennett no time to return home before the Jewish Sabbath.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaking with aides and traveling press before the start of the Jewish sabbath.
Daniel Estrin / NPR
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaking with aides and traveling press before the start of the Jewish sabbath.

Protocol forbids an Israeli prime minister's Star of David-adorned jet to be airborne on the day of rest — Friday to Saturday, sundown to sundown. And Bennett is an Orthodox Jew.

So the Israeli Embassy in Washington borrowed a Torah scroll from a Maryland synagogue for Shabbat services. Bennett's aides produced the emergency Shabbat kit that accompanies the prime minister overseas for moments like this, with tea lights for ritual candle lighting and white-satin skullcaps stamped with the prime minister's blue insignia.

Bennett had his aides purchase four books to read over Shabbat, during which electronic devices are proscribed.

His entourage was required to stay in the same hotel and in one pandemic pod, which is how Bennett, who wears a tiny knitted skullcap on his shaven head held in place with double-sided tape, found himself around a Shabbat buffet table mingling with guards, advisers and traveling reporters.

Minutes before sundown, while reporters were still permitted to film, the prime minister mused about the biblical King David, who displayed true leadership by admitting his sins.

"A leader is not meant to be perfect," Bennett said. "We have blemishes, we all do. In the end, the question is if you take responsibility, if you do what is right, or you do just what the nation says."

Then he praised the role of the free press, and made small talk. Bennett fashioned himself as humble, conciliatory and congenial with reporters – everything his polarizing predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu was not.

A member of the group traveling with Israel's prime minister lights candles to mark the beginning of the Jewish sabbath.
Daniel Estrin / NPR
A member of the group traveling with Israel's prime minister lights candles to mark the beginning of the Jewish sabbath.

The same politician whose party's past election campaigns spoofed liberal critics of Israeli policy – one ad featured a perfume named Fascism, another mocked an apologetic Tel Aviv hipster – on this trip was the model of decency.

The new leader earlier Friday tried his charm on Biden. The president has his own combative history with Netanyahu.

"I bring with me a new spirit, a spirit of goodwill, a spirit of hope, a spirit of decency and honesty, a spirit of unity and bipartisanship," Bennett said in the Oval Office.

Biden praised Bennett's unlikely coalition of left-wing, right-wing and Arab lawmakers, who improbably joined forces to oust Netanyahu, calling it "the most diverse government in Israel's history." Netanyahu is still aiming to unseat Bennett and return to power.

Then the President made passing reference to an uncomfortable subject for any Israeli leader — the Palestinians.

Bennett is the first Israeli leader in years to state openly that he will not hold peace negotiations with Palestinian leaders. The new prime minister, a former head of the Israeli settlement council in the occupied West Bank, once compared Israel's entanglement with the Palestinians to having shrapnel in the butt: an irritant too risky to excise.

'We are just going to muddle through.'

On Saturday, crowds marched nearby to mark the 58th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech (King edited it in the lobby of Bennett's hotel).

Today, Americans may be more attuned to racial injustice than at any point since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and Biden's Democratic base increasingly views Israel's treatment of Palestinians through the same lens.

Bennett has read the room. He likes to tell the story of his late father, American-born Jim Bennett, who was arrested in a 1963 sit-in at a San Francisco hotel that refused to employ Black staff. He talks about human rights, and promises to grant Palestinians easier lives — but not equal rights.

He thinks a Palestinian state poses a threat to Israel, his foreign minister thinks a Palestinian state is key to peace, and they've agreed to disagree.

Demonstrators walk during a march for voting rights on Saturday in Washington, D.C., marking the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Willard InterContinental hotel, where Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was staying with his entourage, is on the right.
Jose Luis Magana / AP
Demonstrators walk during a march for voting rights on Saturday in Washington, D.C., marking the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Willard InterContinental hotel, where Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was staying with his entourage, is on the right.

When NPR asked what Bennett should do now to prevent a more progressive future U.S. president from demanding Israel end its West Bank occupation, an Israeli official — speaking anonymously to reporters under Israeli ground rules -- said Israelis needed better "show and tell" to convince critics they were not perfect, but "pretty darn good."

When asked how Bennett will pursue his policy of expanding West Bank settlements in the face of U.S. opposition, the official said, "We are just going to muddle through."

Muddling may suffice. Biden is the first president in decades to free Israel from the pressure to hold peace talks with the Palestinians, in a cost-benefit analysis of the two sides' lack of will to pursue a resolution, and an implicit acknowledgment of how all past American mediation failed.

And other crises are taking up Biden's attention. Bennett arrived at a White House where flags were at half-staff and the U.S. still hadn't buried its soldiers killed in Kabul.

By nightfall, Bennett joined a small group of journalists, aides and security guards holding Shabbat services in a hotel foyer, and recited kaddish — the mourner's prayer — in memory of his father on the sixth anniversary of his death.

In a carpeted conference room one floor above, the Afghanistan Embassy's deputy chief of mission huddled with young U.S. military veterans organizing charter flights to Kabul's airport to help Afghans escape.

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