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March 16, 2021 2:02 pm

Naftali Bennett’s Choice Will Shape Israel’s Future

avatar by Ilan Evyatar

Opinion

Then-Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett arrives to attend a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 2, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun / File.

With a week to go until Israel’s fourth elections in two years, right and center-right parties are currently polling some 80 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. But these elections are no longer about right versus left. Instead, they boil down to one issue: Bibi, or not Bibi.

That is, will Israel’s longest-serving prime minister remain in office for an unprecedented sixth term, or will he be unseated by a disparate coalition, whose only unifying factor is the desire to remove Benjamin Netanyahu from power.

Lining up against the incumbent is what has been dubbed “the bloc for change” —  the parties that have stated they will not, under any circumstance, sit in government with Netanyahu.

This bloc is comprised of New Hope, a center-right party founded by Netanyahu’s former Likud protege, Gideon Sa’ar; Yesh Atid (center); Blue and White (center); Labor and Meretz (left); and reformed right-wing firebrand Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party, running on an anti-Orthodox ticket.

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In the opposing corner, Netanyahu and his Likud will team up with the ultra-Orthodox parties — Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) — and with the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionist Party (RZP).

With neither side able to form a coalition, they will both be dependent on the one party that hasn’t made it clear on which side it stands — Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party, which espouses right-wing views on nationalist issues, a libertarian economic agenda, and “supports individual liberties while cherishing Jewish tradition and heritage.”

Bennett thus holds the key to what the next government will look like, and will have to choose between the religious nationalist bloc led by Netanyahu and the “bloc for change,” which has no clear leader at this stage. Yair Lapid has, as of the time of writing, so far refrained from stating that he is running for prime minister, and has even suggested that he could lead from behind in order to enable a coalition that could bring down Bibi.

There is little in common between the parties of the “bloc for change,” which range from the pro-annexation, anti-Palestinian-state New Hope on the right, to Meretz on the left, which is anti-settlement and for a two-state solution. They also differ on — well, pretty much everything, from economic policy, to their attitude towards the legal system and the courts. But there is one aspect that binds them together — secularism and opposition to the grip of the ultra-Orthodox parties on Israeli politics and society.

Bennett thus may well hold the key not merely to the question of whether Benjamin Netanyahu will stay in office, but to how Israel will be shaped in the years to come.

A look at the polls shows just how strategic a position the former defense minister holds. In the final polls taken by the three major TV channels before this article went to press, Likud was polling 28-29 seats; Yesh Atid 19-20; Yamina 11-12; New Hope 9-10; the Joint Arab List 8-9; Shas 6-8; UTJ 7; Yisrael Beiteinu 7; Labor 6; RZP 4-6; Blue and White 4-5; and Meretz ranges from 4 to teetering below the electoral threshold, as does the United Arab List.

Netanyahu, even if he were to take the unprecedented step of leaning on the support of Abbas Mansour’s United Arab List, can only form a coalition with the help of Bennett — and the same goes for the bloc for change. If the votes fall evenly, then Bennett may not be able to give either party the 61-seat majority required for victory — unless the bloc for change leans on the Joint Arab List for support from the outside, something Bennett adamantly states he will not agree to.

In the dog-eat-dog world of Israeli politics, the big players are jostling for position. Netanyahu — after weeks of portraying the elections as being a competition between a Likud-led government and a “left-wing” coalition led by Yair Lapid, so as to belittle Gideon Sa’ar — has now moved to shore up the Religious Zionist Party to ensure that it passes the threshold, while bludgeoning Bennett in order to cut Yamina down to size.

Lapid, meanwhile, is aiming to gain seats off Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party — a dangerous ploy, because if he is too successful, he will push his former partner under the electoral threshold, and, with Meretz already teetering on the verge, may find he has overplayed his hand.

If either Blue and White or Meretz, or both, fail to make it into the Knesset, then not only will the bloc for change find itself with less seats, but due to Israel’s complex proportional representation system — without going into the mathematical intricacies — Likud stands to gain in the overall calculation.

Although Yamina is only the third largest party in the polls, Bennett insists nevertheless that the race for the premiership is between him and Netanyahu, and says that he will not sit in a “left wing” coalition under Lapid. Bennett’s positioning and self-branding as the man for Israel’s top job despite the fact that at least two parties will finish ahead of him in the elections, gives an insight into his mindset and where he is striving to reach.

Like Netanyahu, the 48-year-old Bennett served in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, and like his former boss — under whom he served as chief of staff — he is very much focused on the end rather than the means.

The end Bennett is focused on is becoming Israel’s prime minister, and he has two routes to the premiership: either in a rotation with other parties in the “bloc of change,” or in a rotation with Netanyahu. His decision, assuming that he is in a position to choose between the two blocs, could very well rest on which option he feels gives him a longer-term advantage.

Come March 23, Israel’s near-term future will depend very much on Bennett’s choice, and where his loyalties really lie: Will he opt to go with Netanyahu and the nationalist religious camp, or will he join up to the bloc for change?

Ilan Evyatar is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute, and an Israeli journalist. He has served as Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning Jerusalem Report magazine; and News Editor of The Jerusalem Post, where he also wrote a weekly column on politics, economics, and international affairs. He is currently working on his first book.

The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.

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