The Naftali Bennett Riddle
One week before the deadline expires for Benjamin Netanyahu to either form a new government or return the mandate to President Rivlin, the prime minister appears to be at a dead end. While seven days is time enough for a last-minute breakthrough, Netanyahu’s path to forming a government appears to be obstructed by the very bloc he put together before the election.
Prior to the March vote, Netanyahu worked to strengthen the position of the Religious Zionist Party, headed by Bezalel Smotrich. Netanyahu helped the party push through the electoral threshold, on the understanding that Smotrich would help him form a right-wing government.
But Smotrich is unwilling to hear of any coalition that would lean on the support of the Islamist movement affiliated United Arab List (UAL) and its leader, Mansour Abbas. The UAL, which squeezed past the post to gain four seats, has become the smallest party to date to become kingmaker — and is now a decisive factor in whether a coalition can arise or whether the country will go to fifth elections.
Last Saturday evening, Smotrich — outraged by Netanyahu’s call for all sides to cool tensions after violent events in Jerusalem — went as far as to say that it might be time to replace the prime minister, triggering return fire from Netanyahu.
All eyes are now on Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, who finds himself facing an acute dilemma.
Should he form a government with center and left-wing parties, he would, at the tender age of 49, become prime minister of Israel. But he would be a prime minister of compromise in a government that would not be right-wing. It would be a government “of change” — that change being the expulsion of Netanyahu from the political scene.
It would also include Gideon Sa’ar’s Tikva Hadasha (“New Hope”) party, which, while right-wing like Bennett, has vowed never to sit under Netanyahu.
Yamina’s name reflects its ideology — it literally means “rightward.” And yet it is now considering entering into a government of compromise. Herein lies the Bennett riddle: Will he give up his right-wing values and realize a one-time opportunity to become prime minister?
If he does enter into a rotation agreement with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Bennett will go down in history as the man who ended Netanyahu’s long reign in power. There are many political forces in Israel who want to see this happen, as well as several media organizations in Israel.
Yet Bennett’s voters cast their ballot for a right-wing government. Prior to the elections, Bennett appeared on Channel 20 and signed a document before viewers vowing not to sit in a Lapid government.
He is now facing pushback from people in his own party. Bennett is facing the dilemma of his life. He could make history if he becomes prime minister, but if, due to its internal tensions and delicate nature, the compromise government falls soon after being born, it could end Bennett’s political career.
On the other hand, should Bennett enter the fifth round of elections since 2019 as the incumbent prime minister, this might strengthen his chances of gaining broader support for Yamina.
All of the potential party members of the anti-Netanyahu coalition have appointed representatives to take part in coalition talks. Their central objective is to reach the goal of being able to tell President Rivlin that they are capable of forming a government if, as seems likely, Netanyahu returns the mandate.
According to sources in Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid is acting as the responsible adult, promoting the message that what matters most is to form a government and not worrying about who gets which portfolio. This is a message that is particularly aimed at Bennett, and comes as negotiations about distributing roles enter an intense phase.
Disputes are already arising. According to Channel 12 news, Sa’ar has marked out the position of defense minister — a development that caused Benny Gantz to clarify that he will not take part in the compromise government if he does not continue in the role he holds in the current government.
This threat raises the question of whether the assumption that Gantz is automatically in the pocket of the anti-Netanyahu bloc is correct. It even raises speculation that Netanyahu might again be able to entice Gantz back into a government with him, by offering him to be prime minister first in a new rotation agreement.
As the political press monitors negotiations over future positions, it remains possible that Netanyahu is cooking up a new ‘magic trick’ to find a way out of the dead end.
As with all good magicians, Netanyahu has proven adept at getting the media to look at one “show,” while preparing to pull a surprise far from where the public’s attention is focused. He might well be doing it again.
Danielle Roth-Avneri is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute. Danielle is a journalist and reporter on political matters, as well as an editor for the Israel Hayom/Israel Today newspaper, the most widely circulated publication in Israel.
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.