Israel’s Bennett in dilemma over his growing popularity

Current polls give the Yamina party and its leader Naftali Bennett excellent results, just three seats short of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

al-monitor Naftali Bennett, Israeli economy minister and head of the far-right Jewish Home party, gestures as he gives a speech during a debate on the economy, Tel Aviv, Israel, March 11, 2015. Photo by GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images.

oct. 20, 2020

Israel’s biggest political parking lot is named “Naftali Bennett.” Polls conducted in recent weeks consistently give his Yamina party 20 Knesset seats and more. In the March elections, he barely garnered six seats (of 120), which dropped to five after Rabbi Rafi Peretz split off from the party. Bennett’s current 20-plus seats in the polls consist of many disenchanted voters from other parties. Although a right-wing ideologue, Bennett, so it seems, has siphoned off voters from the centrist Blue and White party (worth an estimated 6-7 seats), from the ruling Likud (worth at least 10) and from a variety of parties across the political spectrum.

The draw of Bennett’s “parking lot” for these disparate voters lies in the coronavirus crisis. He comes across as just what the country needs to lead it to safety with his proven entrepreneurship, creativity and abilities — as just about everything that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not.

Results of a Channel 13 News poll aired Oct. 18 indicate for the first time in the current era a new, theoretical constellation that could reshape Israel’s political arena. The numbers suggest that the combined votes of Bennett’s Yamina, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and the Gantz-led Blue and White add up to a slim Knesset majority that could form a coalition government. The poll gave Bennett a record 24 seats (just three fewer than Netanyahu’s Likud), Lapid moved up to 21, while Liberman and Gantz remained steady at eight each.

Adding these numbers, we get 61 seats, i.e., a majority in the 120-seat legislature. This would enable the formation of an Israeli government without the Likud and its allied ultra-Orthodox parties for the first time in over a decade without risking the explosive “leftist” label that is a nonstarter for some of the above-mentioned players and without having to rely on the Arab parties, which are anathema to all of them.

Bennett’s dilemma, if and when, will be a cruel one. If he forms a government without the Likud, he would be marking the end of the Netanyahu era and sinking all hopes of mobilizing the firm Likud base that he covets. Bennett’s true dream is to inherit Netanyahu’s leadership of the Likud. He knows the Likud party stalwarts never forgive anyone who harms their leader. By forming a government without Netanyahu, he risks toppling the ladder on which he is scrambling to the top. On the other hand, and there is definitely another hand, according to the polling, Bennett is Israel’s next prime minister (possibly in a job share rotation arrangement with Lapid) — not Netanyahu. Bennett no longer needs the Likud. From the prime minister’s perch one can reach any political base as Netanyahu proved when he returned to power just three years after bringing his Likud to a nadir of 12 seats in the 2006 elections.

Bennett’s main task at this point is to turn the short-term “parking lot” he opened at the center of the political map into a long-term lot and eventually into a warm electoral home. This is an almost impossible mission. The coronavirus pandemic and the deep disappointment with the greatest hope of the past three elections — Blue and White leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz — have nudged many center-left voters toward Bennett’s intrinsically right-wing party. To preserve their support, Bennett will have to cut himself off from Knesset members such as the ultra-right Bezalel Smotrich and the party’s radical rabbis, veer to the center and create an agenda that is palatable to this new constituency.

Bennett’s latest pronouncements hint at such a strategy. Such moves could scare off the deep right constituency valued at an estimated three to five Knesset seats. Presumably, Bennett’s wing span is not sufficiently broad to cover all these bases. He knows that continued surrender to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties is an existential threat to Israel’s economic resilience, security and social cohesion. He knows Israel needs a government without Netanyahu and without the ultra-Orthodox. He is out for revenge after Netanyahu left him and his leadership partner Knesset member Ayelet Shaked out of the ruling right-wing coalition following the last elections. Will all of the above suffice for Bennett to stare down Netanyahu and bring about his downfall?

Bennett is a fascinating politician. Just 18 months ago, in the April 2019 elections, his party did not cross the electoral threshold and had to sit out that short-lived Knesset term. The voters simply kicked him out. Ahead of the September 2019 elections, Shaked took the helm at the head of a reconstituted party in hopes of improved results. Bennett seemed to have been relegated to the political junkyard and he and Shaked did not fare much better although they did make it back into the Knesset. In the third election cycle, after hooking up with Peretz, they garnered six seats, but remained a marginal niche party. Now, just seven months on, he appears a leading candidate for prime minister, the “hottest” political commodity around, enjoying broad-based support. He owes it all to the coronavirus. A vaccine, if an effective one is found soon, could inoculate a significant chunk of voters against his appeal, but for now he is galloping ahead.

When asked in private conversation whether he sees himself as knocking the final nail into Netanyahu’s political coffin, Bennett swears he is capable of doing just that, without a qualm. If Netanyahu kicked him out of the right-wing bloc, there is no reason for him not to knock him off the prime minister’s perch.

The question is what Bennett would do if he and his Yamina party end up holding the balance of power in the next elections — possibly as soon as February 2021 — and Netanyahu offers him a rotating premiership. After all, Gantz, a decorated general, fell for just such a deal. Gantz’s bitter experience over the past five months makes it abundantly clear that Netanyahu has no intention of making good on his rotation pledge. This in turn has consequences also on a possible Netanyahu-Bennett rotation deal. In fact, it does not bode well for the prime minister.

Years ago, Bennett served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. He knows him inside out. He knows the boss has never been suspected of keeping any promise. Nonetheless, if and when Bennett finds himself with the power to push a button and send Netanyahu home, there is no knowing what he might do. Deep inside, Bennett is still a Netanyahu fan, viewing him as a role model (without the criminal entanglement and his wife’s damaging influence). He is not wild about becoming the new shooting gallery target of Netanyahu’s hard-core supporters’ camp. He knows this will be the toughest decision of his life.

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