When the AJT caught up with George Birnbaum to talk about his client Naftali Bennett becoming prime minister of Israel, the Atlanta-based international political consultant was on the move.
It was late Sunday night in Atlanta and early Monday morning in Dubai, where Birnbaum had flown from Israel en route to a meeting with Zimbabwe’s president. “I’m tired and you know it’s been a long day,” he said, but such is life for the 51-year-old international political consultant.
Hours earlier, by the narrowest of margins, Israel’s parliament had confirmed a new government led by Bennett, whom Birnbaum has known for 15 years and worked with for the past two. The vote in the 120-seat Knesset was 60 in favor, 59 opposed, and one abstention.
Between April 2019 and March, Israelis went to the polls four times, without any party being able to form a government with a majority of seats in the 120-seat parliament. That impasse led to a coalition formed by often-opposing political parties and philosophies (the first time an Arab party is included) that united in their desire to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. “This is the most diverse coalition you could come up with. It is a definition of diversity by anyone’s definition,” Birnbaum said.
Bennett, leader of the rightist Yamina party, is scheduled to serve as prime minister until August 2023. He will then exchange positions for two years with Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party. In the meantime, Lapid will serve as alternate prime minister and foreign minister.
Given the sometimes-volatile nature of Israeli politics, the question is whether the coalition can survive. “It can, as long as it is in everyone’s interest to stay together,” Birnbaum said. “As long as they get off to a good start. I don’t think they want early elections. They’re really going to try to work together.” If relations within the coalition become strained, they need only look to Netanyahu, now leading the opposition, as “a reminder of why they got together.”
Birnbaum described Bennett as “very connected to his roots,” the son of “strong Zionists” who emigrated from America to Israel. During the campaign, “everything stopped” when Bennett’s mother called, Birnbaum said. “He’s a good Jewish boy. He’s very committed to Israel, very committed to the Jewish people.”
Bennett now faces challenges unique to his new position. “The weight of the type of leadership, of decisions on a daily basis, life and death decisions, change a person. Your thought process is different. That’s not to say that the person changes,” but “the weight of being prime minister of Israel is very heavy,” Birnbaum said.
Bennett “has big shoes to fill” with America’s Jewish community, where “Bibi Netanyahu has been on the scene since the early 90s,” Birnbaum said. “He was in D.C., a known quantity, a known figure.” Nonetheless, the consultant believes that his client, who has worked in the American high-tech sector, “will connect very well with the American Jewish community.”
At 49, Bennett becomes Israel’s 13th prime minister. Five months earlier, Joe Biden took office as the 46th president of the United States. The health of the relationship between the two leaders is considered important in both Washington and Jerusalem. “A lot will have to do with how the Biden administration reacts to him,” Birnbaum said. “The Biden administration should embrace this coalition, to support it,” but “not to press this coalition too early on issues that might cause it to break.”
Birnbaum said that Iran may be a difficult topic of discussion. Israel remains steadfast in opposing the multi-national nuclear weapons agreement, which Trump withdrew the U.S. from but which the Biden administration has appeared interested in rejoining. “At that point, the issue will be as it always has been,” Birnbaum said. “Israel will always do what it has to do. They’re the ones who face the existential threat, on a daily basis.”
On the new government’s stance toward the Palestinians, Birnbaum said, “A lot will depend on the Palestinians themselves. They are themselves split, between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. It will be very interesting to see how this coalition and how Foreign Minister Lapid and Prime Minister Bennett deal with both sides.”
Birnbaum otherwise expects the priorities to be domestic — the cost of housing and education, income disparity in Israeli society, and land reform — “social, economic issues that they can focus on and try to find common ground and have accomplishments early on.”
Birnbaum suggested that a signature achievement for Netanyahu may have had an unintended effect at the polls. “From a strategic point of view, the Abrahamic Accords were a fantastic accomplishment for Netanyahu,” Birnbaum said. The accords, fostered by the United States, normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
“The change in paradigm between Israel and the Gulf nations is huge,” Birnbaum said, noting the large number of Israelis on his flight to Dubai. He expects that the new government “will work hard to strengthen” the accords and seek other countries willing to normalize relations.
Birnbaum added that the accords may have changed the election equation by which “security always trumps the economy, sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot, but it always trumps.” He explained that an improved sense of regional safety may have led to an increased emphasis on economic and social concerns, and a greater willingness by Israelis to consider leadership other than Netanyahu.
Despite his role in Bennett’s achievement, Birnbaum said, “It is very strange, having spent 25 years working in Israel and having started my career with Netanyahu” as a chief of staff. “It’s a little bittersweet,” Birnbaum said.
The political consultant was born in Los Angeles but moved to Atlanta with his family at age 4, attending Greenfield Hebrew Academy and then Yeshiva Atlanta, before going to college at Florida Institute of Technology. After a move to Washington, D.C., Birnbaum met and became a protégé of Arthur Finkelstein, which set him on a career advising primarily politically conservative clients in the United States, Israel, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, and other stops.
His peripatetic professional life has put dozens of stamps in Birnbaum’s passport. Despite his seemingly constant travel, Birnbaum said he returns to Atlanta “literally every other weekend” to see his children and tries to take a couple of weeks out of every six or seven to return, and also visit his mother, his sister and other family.
Otherwise, “I live on a plane,” he said.