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Israel Election: Will Bennett Ever Be Able to Break Away From Netanyahu?

Israel elections 2021: No one seems to believe that Bennett has burned his bridges and won't find himself back in Netanyahu's coalition after the election

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Naftali Bennett speaking at a conference in Jerusalem this week.
Naftali Bennett speaking at a conference in Jerusalem this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

UPDATE: Exit polls give Netanyahu slim majority, but only if Bennett joins him. Click for live updates

This analysis was published 8 days ago, and is re-upped as exit polls project Bennett will indeed be kingmaker.

Naftali Bennett has written two relatively short books. The first, “Exit – Insight, Mistakes and Lessons of an Israeli Startup CEO,” was published in 2012 and ended with a homily titled “What I learned from Benjamin Netanyahu – What high-tech entrepreneurs can learn from the prime minister of Israel.”

It is a summary of the four qualities Bennett claims to have learned from Netanyahu when he served as his chief of staff during the time Netanyahu was leader of the opposition three years earlier: determination and perseverance, a willingness to take responsibility and the ability to receive and learn from criticism and, above all, relentless focus on the job at hand.

Reading the admiring words, it’s easy to forget that four years earlier, Bennett had been humiliatingly banished from Netanyahu’s inner circle for having said the wrong word at the wrong moment to his wife Sara. No matter, Netanyahu remained his hero.

A Likud campaign ad claiming that Bennett will join a government with Yair Lapid last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Bennett’s second book appeared in the second half of 2020. “How to Beat a Pandemic” is a coruscating attack on the Israeli government’s handling of the coronavirus and Bennett’s ideas of how to do it much better. One name missing from the book entirely is that of the man who was leading that shambolic government.

Bennett, who had pledged allegiance after the 2020 election to Netanyahu but then, inexplicably, was left outside his coalition, seemed to have no problem criticizing Netanyahu by name in media interviews at the height of the pandemic. But for some unexplained reason, when it came to putting down those criticisms for posterity in a book, he absolved his old boss.

It’s details like these that have convinced many contemporaries of Bennett, including some of his closest aides, past and present, that he will never be capable of breaking the ties that bind him to the prime minister. No matter how many times in the past 14 years that Netanyahu has betrayed his loyal lieutenant, Bennett doesn’t seem capable of letting go. Even in this election, with Likudniks accusing him of being a traitor, Bennett still can’t bring himself to rule out sitting in a Netanyahu coalition after the election.

On Sunday, Netanyahu posted a taunting video online, calling upon Bennett to commit to only joining a right-wing coalition, without Yair Lapid, and to relinquish demands to share the prime minister’s term in rotation. Bennett retorted scornfully, in his speech at a conference organized by the right-wing weekly Besheva, saying that “to hear the word ‘commitment’ from Netanyahu is a bit like appointing Yoram Lass [Israel’s most prominent COVID-denier] as coronavirus czar.”

Bennett and Ayelet Shaked last month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

And yet, no one seems to believe that Bennett has burned his bridges and won’t find himself back in Netanyahu’s coalition after the election. There are three right-wing parties with ideologies similar to that of Likud whose leaders say they seek to replace Netanyahu. But while the general consensus is that Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu are trusted members of the anti-Netanyahu camp, Bennett is not trusted. Each poll that comes out, the seats Bennett’s Yamina party is predicted to win are either placed within the Netanyahu coalition or, at most, classified as “in-between.”

To understand why, you only have to talk with Bennett about Netanyahu and see the wistful look in his eyes. He still seems to believe that all the backstabbing and toxic briefings against him (as well as vile allusions to his wife Gilat’s supposed lack of religious devoutness, and baseless innuendo about an affair between him and Ayelet Shaked) is all Sara Netanyahu’s doing. If it wasn’t for her, he believes he would still be at her husband’s side.

It’s not difficult to imagine Bennett waking up each morning in the forlorn hope that this will be the day Netanyahu calls and bids him return as the prodigal son and heir apparent. After all, he hero-worshipped Netanyahu from afar, long before he actually met him, and even named his son Yoni after the fallen Yoni Netanyahu.

If Bennett was ever to finally break away, it would be in the aftermath of this election. His policy of ambiguity, calling for Netanyahu’s replacement but steadfastly refusing to promise not to serve in his next government, seems to have served him well in the polls. Yamina is currently above New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu, the right-wing parties that have ruled out any cooperation with Netanyahu and is on track to become the third-largest party in the 24th Knesset.

A scenario in which Bennett could choose whether to join Netanyahu, giving him his elusive majority for another full term, or make up the numbers for an alternative coalition that will finally unseat Netanyahu, is looking increasingly likely. But it’s nearly impossible to find anyone who believes him capable of choosing the second option.

Can Bennett change? That may be the question on which the outcome of this election hinges. It could happen. At the end, Brutus does join Caesar’s assassins and this election falls a week after the Ides of March. But for Bennett, being the politician to deliver the coup de grâce that would finally remove Netanyahu from office would be a Shakespearean act of regicide – patricide, even.

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