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Kingmaker of Israel's Election Is About to Get the Full Royal Treatment

Of all political players, Yamina head Naftali Bennet is in the best position ahead of Israel's election. But there's a price

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting, last year.
Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting, last year.Credit: Emil Salman
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

1. Four weeks to the election, and the political map of the morning after can be drawn already. The most important factor, of course, is the electoral threshold. Just a few votes will determine whether Yaron Zelekha goes down the drain, if Benny Gantz will make it through to the end and whether Meretz, the United Arab List and Religious Zionism get into the Knesset.

If the pro-Netanyahu bloc, together with Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, has 61 Knesset seats, it will be the briefest coalition negotiations in history. The pressure from within will defeat Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. They’ll milk Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for cabinet portfolios he doesn’t mind giving away (not the Justice Ministry, but Bennett could be both finance and defense minister, if he wanted) and for promises that everyone knows he’ll never fulfill.

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If Netanyahu doesn’t get to 61, then party heads Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope), Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), Merav Michaeli (Labor) and Bennett will all meet in some room to decide whether they will agree to “swallow the frog” and put aside ideological differences, or get dragged into another election while Netanyahu stays in power. The loathing for Netanyahu in the political establishment is so great that such a stew could actually be tasty.

2. On the current political map, leaving aside the question marks over the electoral threshold, Bennett is the player in the best position. He’s politically ambidextrous – he could either join a Netanyahu-led coalition or not. He’s the tofu of Israeli politics, with the ability to absorb any flavor, but he can also be very bland indeed. Bennett is a gambler by disposition and he likes where he is, but he’s also stuck in terms of attracting votes. He can’t grow, he can only shrink.

In effect, the election will be determined on the margins of Bennett’s support, which is why everyone’s attacking him. The most important votes in the election are the ones equal to two Knesset seats that will be cast by voters who are deliberating between Bennett and Sa’ar – the largest reservoir of votes between the two blocs – plus another half a Knesset seat’s worth of voters who are deciding between Yesh Atid and Yamina.

3. In his “conversations” with “associates” that are strangely leaked immediately to political analysts, Bennett explains that he’ll be a key player after the election. On one hand he’s right; on the other hand, he could end up with only six or seven Knesset seats. In his opinion polls, Bennett sees great erosion of support among his voters on the right, not the center, where his numbers are stable. But it’s a gradual process. If Bennett’s right-leaning voters leave him, then his more centrist supporters will see that Yamina is not truly important and they’ll leave too.

4. On Wednesday morning, Bennett said in an interview with Kan Bet public radio that he will not join a government led by Lapid. It was a calculated move, not a slip of the tongue. Bennett scheduled the interview precisely to deliver that message. In voter surveys that he commissions, he sees that his centrist voters are the faction of Kahol Lavan that supported its joining the current government, refugees from Kulanu and liberal religious Jews. They cannot stand Lapid. They could live with Sa’ar, but not with Lapid. Bennett knows that in the coming month he will face poisonous attacks from Netanyahu, attacks that are effective with religious Israelis, about his “allying with the left” that could chase voters away from Yamina and to Likud. The radio interview was an attempt at containment, and its success or failure will become evident in the weeks ahead.

5. Netanyahu’s latest move against Bennett was an attempt to break up Yamina from the inside. In the past, Shaked examined her options in Likud, without success. Yamina Knesset candidate Abir Kara and his “Shulmanim” protest group of small business owners are only out for themselves. Alon Davidi, the mayor of Sderot who stepped down to run for Knesset with Yamina, had been in Likud and he doesn’t seem to have a personal beef with Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s late-game move, right before the movers show up at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, will be to try to dismantle Yamina and take three MKs from it, giving them desirable positions in return.

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