Netanyahu Challenger Has a Masterplan to Replace Him

Yamina chairman Bennett has thus far stayed mum on whether he would join a Netanyahu government. That's part of a plan that just might win him the premiership

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett speaks to the press while on a tour of the Omer Regional Council in the Negev, last month.
Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett speaks to the press while on a tour of the Omer Regional Council in the Negev, last month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Two politicians would like the rightist-ultra-Orthodox bloc to win a Knesset majority in Israel's upcoming election. One is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The other, and to no less an extent, is Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett, because he sees this as giving him a real shot at the prime minister’s job.

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Bennett is concerned less with the results of the election than with the coalition negotiations that will follow. His plan is simple. If his party provides the seats Netanyahu needs to be able to form a governing coalition, he’ll go to the leaders of the anti-Netanyahu bloc – Yair Lapid, Gideon Sa’ar, Avigdor Lieberman, Merav Michaeli and Nitzan Horowitz – and persuade them to make him prime minister by threatening that if they don’t, he’ll back Netanyahu for the job.

As Yossi Verter reported in Haaretz on Friday, Bennett has recently been reciting the mantra, “I’ve decided that there won’t be a fifth election.” This statement is meant to justify whatever decision he makes after the election, whether it’s supporting Netanyahu or his opponents.

If he can, he wants to repeat the coup he pulled off in late 2019, when Netanyahu made him defense minister out of fear that otherwise, he would back Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz. But this time, Bennett is aiming even higher.

Bennett plans to propose that he head an emergency government that would focus on the coronavirus and the economic crisis while refraining from dealing with controversial issues. He argues that such a government would put an end to Netanyahu’s rule, “restore the country to sanity” and enable the next election to revolve around competing ideologies rather than one man.

He is convinced that this proposal will be acceptable to the heads of all the anti-Netanyahu parties, including the left-wing Meretz, since if Meretz – which some polls have shown failing to get enough votes to enter the Knesset – nevertheless manages to squeak in, the last thing it will want is another election. As Haaretz has previously reported, Bennett recently said in a private conversation that “Israel has had more complicated coalitions than this before.”

So far, Bennett has been careful to avoid affiliating himself with either the pro-Netanyahu or the anti-Netanyahu bloc and has refused to say whether or not he would join a Netanyahu-led government. But judging by past experience, he would have trouble sending Netanyahu into the opposition for fear that his voters would never forgive him for preventing the establishment of a rightist government.

Nevertheless, people close to him say he is now determined to escape from Netanyahu’s shadow and stop being the prime minister’s “whipping boy,” as the head of the Religious Zionism party, MK Bezalel Smotrich, once called him.

The main obstacle to Bennett’s plan is that the polls currently aren’t showing the results he wants. Since party tickets were finalized last month, the media have conducted 23 polls, but only two of them showed Netanyahu’s bloc, including Yamina, winning the necessary 61 seats. In contrast, 20 polls predicted that the anti-Netanyahu bloc – including Yamina but excluding the Arabs’ Joint List – would win a Knesset majority.

The remaining poll, published in Israel Hayom this weekend, found that the United Arab List would make it into the Knesset and the Joint List would win 10 seats, with the result being that neither bloc would have a majority. If that happens, neither side would be able to form a governing coalition without an Arab party’s support, or at least its abstention. And that would put Bennett’s promise to avoid another election to a real test.

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