Since it became clear that Naftali Bennett would lead the governing coalition as prime minister, hordes of demonstrators have made life hell for him and his neighbors.
Bennett lives in a lovely home on a quiet residential street in the sleepy, heavily Anglo town or Ra’anana—a short highway hop from north Tel Aviv. The demonstrators are hard-core right-wing supporters who are enraged that he chose to support a coalition that included the left, an Arab party, and the centrist Yesh Atid. They see Bennett as having deceived those who voted for him, as well as the country.
Every evening, they bring their rage to his doorstep, banging on pots and pans, with noisemakers, bullhorns, you name it. Life for his family and neighbors is unbearable–not unlike what the neighbors of the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, on Balfour Street, have put up with for two years, more or less.
Every Saturday night, the anti-Bibi activists have demonstrated outside “Balfour,” jamming nearby streets in central Jerusalem and making life, well, impossible. They often carry on quite late, not giving a toss about the small children and others who need to sleep, and showing no regard for the residents of Rehavia—the leafy, upscale, central Jerusalem neighborhood where this all goes down. The crazy thing was that Benjamin Netanyahu and his family were almost always enjoying tranquility at their seaside Caesarea villa on Saturday nights, unperturbed by the chaos on Balfour. They missed the mayhem entirely.
The Balfour demonstrations were just a weekly nuisance. The situation with the Bennetts is an almost nightly event, as he and his wife decided to remain based in Ra’anana to avoid disrupting the lives of their four school-age kids.
Thing is, the Bennetts’ choice is wreaking havoc on their tranquil neighborhood. Permanent roadblocks and other security controls have turned the serene rhythm of upper-middle-class life into chaos.
On Monday, a temporary arrangement was put in place that should calm things somewhat, though it is unlikely to be satisfactory in the longer term. Demonstrations may only be held twice weekly with no noise after 9:30 pm and are prohibited on Shabbat. It’s a start, but it’s unlikely to mollify Ra’anana residents.
Aside from proximity to work, there are many reasons that heads of state reside in “official residences.” Security is a huge issue, particularly in Israel, and imposing that albatross on a residential neighborhood is extreme.
Then again, even if Bennett intended to move the family into Balfour, he could not do so just yet. Netanyahu and his family continue to reside there. They had to be shamed into agreeing to move out by July 11.
The Netanyahus have been pilloried over the years for their allegedly extravagant lifestyle and sense of entitlement. Their reluctance to budge from Balfour is seen as just another manifestation. Heads of state move out of their official residence on the date they are done. Bibi probably believed that the coalition that replaced his government would last a day. He likely anticipated its immediate collapse, triggering a fifth election and leaving him a caretaker prime minister.
But Bennett was being poked and mocked for letting Netanyahu dictate the terms of his departure, particularly after the Nikki Haley affair. During a short visit to Israel in the days after Bennett was sworn in as prime minister, Haley visited the Netanyahus at Balfour with Pastor John Hagee. The foursome posed for a “family photo,” memorialized in Haley’s tweet:
Netanyahu was not the prime minister at the time, which caused a bit of a flap. But “formers” are often referred to “as if” they still occupy the offices they once held all over the and only out of respect. The more substantive concern was that Bibi was using Balfour—and the status it represents—inappropriately.
That very public misstep was the final straw for Bennett, whose office instructed the public service to negotiate the former prime minister’s exit. Even though Bennett will not live there full-time, he plans to do so with his family on weekends. He intends to hold meetings there throughout the week, as the sitting prime minister should be free to do.
No doubt, there are those who enjoy what some see as a very public humiliation of the former PM. Schadenfreude aside, the matter is not about Bibi. It’s about the dignity of the symbols of state and the transition of power in a democracy. Balfour is the official residence of the nation’s prime minister, not a waystation or negotiating chip. Netanyahu is well aware of that. By staying put, he makes it very clear that he sees himself as the rightful occupant of Balfour. He will not be pushed around by what he openly derides as an illegitimate government.
Would that a leader of his stature, accomplishment, and intellect had chosen a more statesmanlike way to exit the public stage.