Analysis |

Bennett’s Government Is Imploding, and He Has Only Himself to Blame

Of the seven Yamina lawmakers in the Knesset, three have stabbed Naftali Bennett in the back and two others have plotted to leave him. As a party leader, he has failed spectacularly

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a news conference in Jerusalem earlier this week.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a news conference in Jerusalem earlier this week.Credit: Yoav Dodkevitz
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

If Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government collapses before the end of the month, as most political analysts in Israel are expecting, many people will share the blame for its downfall – from rebellious lawmakers who refused to adhere to the government’s policy in crucial votes, to arrogant party leaders who didn’t pay enough attention to their frustrated back-benchers, thus turning them into potential targets for recruitment by the Benjamin Netanyahu-led opposition.

The truth is, though, that no single person in Bennett’s fragile governing coalition will be more responsible for its demise than Bennett himself.

The verdict on Bennett’s performance as prime minister is still out, though it’s easy to point to several areas where he has clearly been more successful than his predecessor Netanyahu – such as his calm, panic-free handling of two COVID waves.

But as a politician and party leader, Bennett has failed spectacularly. And that failure will very likely cost him his job in the coming days or weeks.

Bennett’s Yamina party finished the March 2021 election with seven seats: small, but in a position of great power due to the political deadlock between Israel’s anti- and pro-Netanyahu camps. Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition without Bennett, but neither was the fragmented anti-Netanyahu bloc. Both needed Bennett’s seven seats and were willing to offer him the ultimate prize in return.

The Yamina leader recognized the rare opportunity the election results had bestowed upon him and started negotiating with both Netanyahu and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, with the aim of ultimately signing a rotation agreement with one of them and becoming the first-ever Israeli prime minister to enter office despite leading a party with fewer than 10 Knesset seats.

It all went according to plan, even though the May 2021 war with Hamas caused Bennett at one point to freeze his talks with Lapid. When the smoke cleared and it became apparent that Netanyahu wasn’t able to form a government even if Bennett were to join him, Bennett made his choice.

On June 2, 2021, he and Lapid announced the creation of their “change government” and 11 days later, on June 13, it was sworn in.

From the start, the government enjoyed a razor-thin majority, even though the parties joining the eclectic, right-center-left coalition had won a combined 62 of the 120 Knesset seats – which should have given them a bit of a cushion. The reason they didn’t: One of Bennett’s lawmakers, MK Amichai Chikli, refused to join the coalition and turned instead to an alliance with Likud.

Chikli accused Bennett of breaking his promise to Yamina voters by joining forces with left-wing parties, even though Bennett’s ultimate and most crucial election promise was to stop Israel from suffering a fifth election cycle in two years – a promise he kept by breaking some of his other, less significant ones. Chikli’s move left the coalition wounded from its inception, reliant on each and every one of its members in order to pass legislation, with no margin for error.

For a while, it seemed like a coalition with a bare-bones, 61-59 majority could work: the government successfully passed a state budget at the end of 2021, something Netanyahu had failed to do for three consecutive years. But the celebrations lasted only a few months, until April, when a second member of Bennett’s party, MK Idit Silman – the coalition whip, no less – joined Chikli by quitting and becoming a de-facto member of Likud.

Silman’s resignation left Bennett without a majority in the Knesset, and from that point on the government has been living on borrowed time.

Former Yamina MK Idit Silman in the Knesset earlier this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The bizarre episode of Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi quitting the coalition last month, only to return to it and then to quit again, made things even worse. That gave MK Nir Orbach, also from Bennett’s party, the perfect excuse to end a year of very public deliberations and announce the termination of his own membership in the coalition. As noted above, many people share the blame for this situation. But ultimately, the numbers tell a very clear story – and a tragic one for the prime minister: Out of the seven people who entered the Knesset on his back, three betrayed him and two others – Minister Ayelet Shaked and MK Abir Kara – have for months been publicly talking with Likud about defecting.

Bennett knows that each stab in the back from one of his party members was of his own making. Yamina is not a democratic party where members choose the Knesset slate, like Likud or Labor. Bennett chose the ticket himself, and he couldn’t have done it any worse.

Inviting a random group of his neighbors in Ra’anana to join his run would have probably yielded better results for him than running with the Knesset slate he assembled, which included unknown Religious Zionist members like Orbach and Silman. Apart from their immediate families, not a single Israeli voted for Yamina because of Silman, Orbach or Chikli.

If and when the government collapses, Israel will probably go to another election, expected to take place this fall. Bennett will have a long list of achievements to run on from his year as prime minister. But hailing his meetings with regional Arab leaders and the Mossad’s secret operations against Iran won’t be enough for him to convince Israelis that he deserves another chance.

If he wants to win seven seats or more in the next election, he will first of all have to demonstrate that he can choose people with a modicum of loyalty to both him and his party.

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