Naftali Bennett is setting a trap for voters who want a new government and a new direction for Israel.
If you believe the public opinion polls published in the lead-up to Tuesday’s election, then you believe the following statement: A majority of Israelis don’t want Benjamin Netanyahu to remain as prime minister, and an even larger majority want to remove the ultra-Orthodox parties from the government.
Yet the most likely result in the upcoming election is that Netanyahu will remain in office and the ultra-Orthodox parties will be stronger than ever.
This is not an analytical statement or a personal opinion. It is simply a reflection of the results that appear in the opinion polls as we prepare for Israel’s fourth election in two years.
Take, for example, the recent polls published by Channel 12, which accurately predicted the results of the previous election in March 2020. According to its polling, 51 percent of Israelis don’t want Netanyahu to remain as prime minister and only 21 percent of Israelis want a government with the ultra-Orthodox parties. However, the bloc of parties that support a Netanyahu-led, ultra-Orthodox-controlled government is on the cusp of securing a majority of 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
Similar trends appear in other opinion polls, as well as in the “internal polling” that parties commission in order to make important campaign decisions.
To some, these numbers may seem confusing – the 'tired majority' of Israelis who are tired of Netanyahu and his Ultra-Orthodox partners, should be reflected in the polls’ distribution of Knesset seats. But the key to unlocking this contradiction lies mostly with one small yet significant group of voters: people who don’t want Netanyahu and would like a government without the ultra-Orthodox, yet are planning to vote for Bennett’s Yamina party.
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The polls that show Netanyahu’s “dream coalition” on the verge of winning 61 seats all include Bennett’s party as part of the pro-Netanyahu bloc, which also includes Likud, the Haredi parties and the far-right, anti-Arab, Kahanist party of Bezalel Smotrich. Without Bennett’s Yamina, this bloc of parties has only 50-51 seats in all recent polls. But with Bennett it grows to 60, one seat short of a majority that will dramatically change Israeli society.
A vote for Bennett is a de facto vote for this coalition – Netanyahu, ultra-Orthodox, far right. While Bennett tries to present himself as more moderate on religious issues than the Haredim, he will succumb to most of their demands once he enters a coalition with them, just as he did in the Netanyahu-led governments he was a member of between 2015 and 2020.
Bennett sat in the Netanyahu government that backtracked on the “Western Wall compromise” in 2017, a decision that was a slap in the face of many supporters of Israel in the Jewish Diaspora. He was part of the Netanyahu government in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, the government allowed daily fights from New York instead of closing the country’s main entrance point. This turned out to be the reason for the majority of cases during Israel’s deadly first wave last year.
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After the previous rounds of elections in Israel, Bennett personally signed a public “oath of loyalty” to Netanyahu, in which he promised not to join any government not led by the current prime minister. This reflected the fact that Bennett’s earliest steps in politics were as a personal aide to Netanyahu. Over the years, the two have exchanged harsh words and spread ugly rumors about each other, but in practice Bennett has never stopped working for his former boss.
In his current election campaign, Bennett is trying to speak ambiguously about what kind of government he would join, and whether or not he will keep his “oath” to Netanyahu. He is highlighting economic issues in his messaging, despite the fact that after Israel’s last two election rounds, Benny Gantz – Netanyahu’s main challenger in those elections – offered to name Bennett as finance minister in exchange for him joining a Gantz-led government. Bennett rejected the offer, twice, out of loyalty to Netanyahu.
Bennett also fails to explain how any of his economic ideas would be achieved if he once again joins a government with the ultra-Orthodox parties. These parties expect any government they sit in to continue financing their community’s current way of life. Bennett’s economic reforms will die very quickly in a Netanyahu-led coalition with the Haredim.
If Bennett manages to hold onto his swath of voters who, at least in the opinion polls, say they don’t want another Netanyahu-and-ultra-Orthodox coalition, then Israel will wake up on Wednesday to the most extreme government in its history.
For the first time ever, adherents of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s racist ideology will have an active role in a governing coalition. The ultra-Orthodox parties will move to reverse the progress Israel has made on women’s rights and LGBT rights – progress that has been at the heart of Israel’s messaging to the world in recent years. Netanyahu, meanwhile, will fire Israel’s attorney general and install a “loyalist” who will cancel the criminal indictments against the prime minister.
This scenario looks most likely at the moment. But it can still be averted.
The question of whether or not it will materialize hinges on the small group of voters who are tired of Netanyahu and angry at the ultra-Orthodox parties, yet are planning to vote for Yamina on Tuesday. If they change their mind and vote for one of the right-wing or centrist parties that truly oppose Netanyahu, a different coalition – far from perfect, but at least not as extreme – could emerge once all the votes are counted.