As Netanyahu eyes a fifth election, is he driving Bennett into Lapid’s arms?

The prime minister, used to playing the game at its most unscrupulous and predatory, may have crossed the line at which the effect of his vilification campaign is reversed

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett arrives at a polling station to cast his vote during the elections, in Ra'anana on March 23, 2021. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett arrives at a polling station to cast his vote during the elections, in Ra'anana on March 23, 2021. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Twelve days remain to Benjamin Netanyahu’s mandate from the president to form a government, and everything is really and truly stuck.

The Knesset is frozen after Netanyahu lost a plenum vote on Monday that denied Likud a majority in the parliament’s Arrangements Committee, and led the committee’s chairman, Likud MK Miki Zohar, to refuse to convene it.

It’s a technical, procedural matter, but it has vast implications for the prime minister. Without the Arrangements Committee, no other committees can be established, making it all but impossible for the parliament to do its work.

For Netanyahu, the loss of the committee means he cannot alter the electoral system to allow for the one-off direct prime ministerial race he’s demanding, which he claims will finally settle who is to be Israel’s next premier after four indecisive elections.

Barring a dramatic political surprise (always a possibility where Netanyahu is concerned), the next 12 days are likely to pass without a functioning Knesset.

The Plenary Hall during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

For the past three days. the parliament building has been enveloped in a strange stillness, but for Netanyahu, that hasn’t dulled the will to go on fighting. He has launched the next phase of his struggle for a decisive victory and is gearing up for a fifth election.

The inexplicable onslaught on Naftali Bennett

“Unlike what you claim, Naftali, you’re doing everything to torpedo a right-wing government,” Netanyahu declared to the cameras on Wednesday in comments carried by all major television outlets.

It was a refrain repeated ad nauseum over the past couple of days by Likud officials and Netanyahu himself. Bennett was “demolishing the right,” stymieing a right-wing coalition, and, as Netanyahu put it, preparing “to lead a left-wing government of [Yair] Lapid, Meretz and Labor supported by the Joint List….While we have the mandate, you sealed a deal with Lapid on a government of the left and the extreme left.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“You said, ‘Bring [Betzalel] Smotrich and Gideon [Sa’ar],’” Netanyahu said, addressing Bennett, “but there’s a solution that doesn’t depend on them, a solution in which the public decides who’s the prime minister, and that solution depends only on you.”

Netanyahu’s accusation is a strange one. Mathematically it isn’t true: Netanyahu’s religious-right coalition including Bennett’s Yamina only has 59 seats all told, two short of the majority Netanyahu needs to form a government.

Netanyahu’s intensive efforts to bring either Ra’am or New Hope to his side failed miserably, but neither failure was Bennett’s fault. It was Religious Zionism leader Smotrich who nixed the Ra’am deal and New Hope’s own Sa’ar who told Netanyahu not to bother trying with him. Bennett, meanwhile, announced last week he’d back a Netanyahu-led government the moment one could be found. He then voted with Likud on the Arrangements Committee bill.

Bennett expressed misgivings about the direct-election bill, which he believes would both unduly empower the prime minister at the parliament’s expense and mark a fundamental change to the rules of the game mid-game. On Wednesday he came out openly against it. But Netanyahu would lack the votes to pass the measure even if Bennett supported it.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett delivers a statement to the press at the Knesset on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu is right that Bennett has hedged his bets, refused during the campaign to commit to a Netanyahu-led government, and has at least one obvious reason to prefer a government with Lapid over one with Likud — a turn as prime minister. But none of that changes the painful fact that Bennett was not the cause of Netanyahu’s electoral troubles. At every turn — at least as of Wednesday — Bennett voted with Netanyahu.

Why, then, is Bennett the sole target of his ire? Why did Netanyahu lash him as a tiny right-wing “pinhead” atop a leftist government or suggest mockingly that he’d considered letting Bennett spend a weekend at the prime minister’s residence to get over his “lust for power?”

The fifth election

The answer is simple: He’s decided to go for a fifth election.

To get there, Netanyahu must first ensure that Lapid doesn’t succeed in piecing together a coalition after he fails.

When Netanyahu’s mandate ends in 12 days, President Reuven Rivlin will have several choices available to him by law, including extending Netanyahu’s mandate by up to 14 more days; handing Lapid the mandate as head of the next-largest party, giving him 28 days to try to cobble together a coalition of his own; or throwing the baton to the Knesset as a whole, triggering a 21-day period in which any MK who can win a majority vote of support can become prime minister. At the end of that 21-day period, if no one has succeeded in forming a government, the Knesset would automatically dissolve and call new elections.

Party leaders Naftali Bennett (left) and Yair Lapid during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, at the Knesset building in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

That sequence is vital to understanding Netanyahu’s plan and Lapid’s looming challenge: Netanyahu, then (if the president chooses) Lapid, then the entire Knesset gets a chance.

Netanyahu seems resigned to the fact that he won’t get a majority for either forming a government or relitigating the March 23 race via a direct vote for premier.

Now he must prevent Lapid from succeeding where he is all but certain to fail.

The campaign against Bennett has one purpose: to frighten him away from a coalition with Lapid. It’s a taste of Likud’s coming campaign against Yamina, one Bennett knows could well decimate his party at the ballot box.

Netanyahu seems to believe that framing Bennett as a “power-hungry” enemy of the right will scare the Yamina leader away from a government with Lapid and left-wing parties. He seems to believe that mentioning the Arab-majority Joint List will hurt Bennett, even after Likud’s intensive courting of the Islamist party Ra’am over the past two weeks — and even after Netanyahu’s call to Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas seeking support for the direct-election bill just hours before his Wednesday address bashing Bennett.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, center, and his wife Gilat Bennett, right, cast their ballots during the elections, at a polling station in Ra’anana on March 23, 2021. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Tipping point

Netanyahu’s strategy is a clever one. Bennett and Sa’ar (and Smotrich too) have far more reason to fear a new election than Netanyahu. Each could be erased from the Knesset in the next vote. It’s logical, then, to try to frighten them with that possibility, to do one’s utmost to drag them coalition-less right up to the precipice and see if they don’t come around. In the worst-case scenario, Likud can focus its campaign in the ensuing race on decimating the two rightist challengers.

But there’s a tipping point Netanyahu doesn’t see. He’s so used to playing the game at its most unscrupulous and predatory that he cannot tell when he’s crossed the line at which the effect of his vilification campaign is reversed. As tyrants and bullies often learn to their distress, a small amount of pressure may ensure obedience but too much pressure can trigger sudden and overpowering blowback.

Netanyahu’s anti-Bennett campaign may have passed that point.

The attacks by Netanyahu and other Likud politicians and media surrogates “do not impress me,” Bennett said Wednesday. “He’s saying, ‘If I don’t have a government, nobody will have a government; we’ll have elections — 5th and 6th and 7th…. This cannot go on. Israel cannot be held hostage by politicians…. While the country wants a government, Netanyahu prefers another election. I won’t let that happen.”

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett arrives for coalition talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 8, 2021.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Instead of convincing Bennett he’d be better off at Likud’s side than at Lapid’s, Netanyahu has convinced Bennett he’ll have to face Likud’s wrath in any case, that Netanyahu will try to erase him in the next election no matter which path he takes now.

That knowledge only makes a coalition with Lapid more attractive. Bennett would stand a real chance of winning the premiership, might end up with some credit for stabilizing the political system and ending the cycle of repeat elections, and, based on his demands in earlier talks with Lapid for a “national unity government,” may even manage to hold the line against left-wing policies, a condition he reiterated on Wednesday.

Then again, he may not. It’s a gamble. But all political coalitions are a gamble, as Netanyahu’s own experience with some unstable coalitions over the past decade demonstrates. But if the trial by fire is to come in any case, Bennett now believes, he might as well be in the driver’s seat when it does.

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