Gantz and Bennett Are Down, So Who’s Left to Replace Netanyahu?

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Yamina leader Naftali Bennett in Tel Aviv this month.
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett in Tel Aviv this month.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A scenario that seemed quite likely after the latest round of the circus, a fifth general election, is now the most likely scenario as the end approaches for Yair Lapid, who took over from Benjamin Netanyahu in trying to form a government. When people were already celebrating the formation of a government of change, an official in the middle of events made a point of curbing our enthusiasm, noting that Naftali Bennett was the weakest link in these efforts. He was right.

Bennett, as far as is known, is an honest man; his intentions are good and he has some charm and a modicum of ambition. But Bennett isn’t a strong figure.

Without disregarding the intensity of the pressure he was under, as well as the painful move by his political partner, Ayelet Shaked, Bennett’s folding after he was on the road to forming a government proves that he’s not made of the stuff of someone seeking to take over on Balfour Street.

The head of a caucus who can’t keep its members under control, stumbling in his first attempt to march down the road leading to the pinnacle of his political aspirations, simply can’t be prime minister. It’s obvious that if Netanyahu were in Bennett’s situation he would have grabbed the opportunity with both hands, even at the cost of handing out key positions to Hamas and Hezbollah.

Bennett is a more organized and vigorous version of Benny Gantz, who also succumbed to pressure and entered Netanyahu’s government while splitting Kahol Lavan. (Back then I supported a national unity government as a possible solution to the political chaos, but on condition that the entire Kahol Lavan caucus at the time, including Lapid’s Yesh Atid, form a bulwark against Netanyahu.) Gantz took fright at the coronavirus warnings and the possibility of yet another election, after the previous ones had been calamitous for him, the same way Bennett got scared by the terrible din of war, by the riots across the country and by Shaked.

Gantz and Bennett fell victim to the escalating chaos generated by Netanyahu, a free-for-all where it’s hard to keep your bearings or even remain clear-headed. Both yielded to more-or-less junior partners who torpedoed a government they could have formed. Gantz gave in to Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, Bennett to Shaked and Amichai Chikli. The two politicians who were closest to replacing Netanyahu fell victim to the laws of natural selection.

In contrast to these two are their partners in the pro-change bloc, Lapid and Gideon Sa’ar. These two have shown steadfastness and total control of their caucuses. Lapid has maintained a consistent stance against Netanyahu ever since he was fired from the latter’s third government, proving in retrospect that he was right in claiming that it was impossible to do business with Bibi.

Sa’ar, the target of awful attacks from within and without Likud when he ran against Netanyahu, is maintaining his refusal to throw Bibi a life preserver. These two can, at least in terms of their mental fortitude, serve as prime minister (so can Avigdor Lieberman, but anyone who assails Netanyahu for his corruption and racism can’t give their support to Lieberman as prime minister).

To borrow from soccer, we can say that every time a defender didn’t stay in position, letting Netanyahu steal a goal and reach his target. He has no government to halt his corruption trial, but going from one election to another at the head of a caretaker government, leaving him in the official residence, is a satisfying consolation prize, stretching the time until the attorney general retires. After a horrible year on every possible front – a paralyzing pandemic, war, civil strife – it’s hard to find some encouragement.

But let’s remember that you can’t step in the same river twice, certainly not five times. The “Sa’ar phenomenon” has expanded beyond its flimsy brand of “statesmanlike right-wing,” which is used mainly by leftists who never voted for the right and who now miss Menachem Begin and Limor Livnat. The phenomenon now appeals to others on the right who, even if not fed up with Netanyahu, at least realize that he can’t form a government.

This constituency is slowly but steadily growing. Ultimately, water wears down rock. For this we need more nerves of steel and fewer weak links.

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