Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced Wednesday night that he will not be running in the upcoming elections and will be stepping back from political life.
Bennett will stay on as alternate prime minister once Foreign Minister Yair Lapid replaces him as premier, which could take place as soon as Thursday if the Knesset finishes passing legislation to disperse itself.
The outgoing prime minister said that his long-time political partner Ayelet Shaked will take up the Yamina leadership moving forward.
In an emotional statement, Bennett expressed pride in his government’s achievements and urged the country to unite in order to preserve its accomplishments.
“I will not stand in the coming elections but I will remain a loyal soldier of this country which I have served as a combat soldier, an officer, a minister and as your prime minister. Serving this country is my destiny,” said Bennett.
“I am finishing more than a year as prime minister,” he continued. “Thank God, I leave behind me a strong, secure and flourishing country. The government I headed did in a year what other governments did not do in an entire term.”
“We have proved that there is a common good and that it is possible to stand by agreements,” he said. “We will only be victorious if we are together. If we are divided we simply will not be. If we will be united no one can overcome us. Let us be good to each other. Let us listen, let us learn to get to know each other and to be respectful.”
Bennett in his speech listed off the accomplishments of his government. It had, he said, restored quiet and security to the south; got hundreds of thousands of people back to work; tackled two waves of COVID without a resort to lockdown; fought a wave of terror; raised soldiers’ pay; “and made clear to our enemies that those who send terrorists to Tel Aviv will pay the price in their own homes.”
“Soon,” he said cryptically, “there will be additional important news in fields that relate to our future” — a possible reference to advances in Israel’s ties with countries in the region. US President Joe Biden is due in Israel and Saudi Arabia next month, and there has been much speculation about a breakthrough in this regard, and about widening defense alliances against Iran.
Bennett gave thanks to Shaked, as well as to his stalwart ally Matan Kahana, who he said had been the best religious services minister in the country’s history.
Kahana had hoped that he might take over the Yamina leadership, but it is unclear if he will remain with the party under Shaked.
Stella Weinstein, Yamina’s CEO, resigned in the wake of Bennett’s announcement.
A series of recent opinion polls had shown Yamina would take just four seats in new elections, leaving the party dangerously close to dropping below the electoral threshold and being ejected from the Knesset. However, a snap survey on Channel 12 Wednesday night said Yamina under Shaked would win five seats; if she partnered with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that would be enough to lift Netanyahu and his bloc to a Knesset majority, the poll showed.
Bennett had been vacillating in recent days as to whether or not to run in the upcoming elections, and the poor outlook in the polls for Yamina seemingly swayed his decision to quit.
Ministers in the outgoing government praised Bennett for his premiership and wished him the best moving forward.
Lapid wrote on Twitter: “Naftali, my friend, thank you on my behalf and on behalf of the people of Israel.”
“Naftali Bennett is an Israeli patriot,” tweeted Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. “He was a good prime minister who filled the position in a statesman-like fashion. We worked in full cooperation on behalf of Israel and its citizens. I am convinced that he will return to serve the country in the future. Naftali, thank you and good luck!”
Health Minister Nitzan Horovitz, head of the left-wing Meretz party, said that he worked closely with Bennett over the past year: “There were disagreements and political matters, but I discovered a hard-working and matter-of-fact person who really cares about the public. His positions are not my positions and that is clear, but I have great appreciation for him. Israel has earned a year of good government, much to its credit.”
Meanwhile, leading ultra-Orthodox politicians expressed delight that Bennett was stepping away from political life, accusing him of having deceived the electorate in the last election when he promised he would not agree to a rotation agreement for the premiership with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.
“It appears that God is the one who runs the world,” quipped United Torah Judaism Chairman MK Moshe Gafni.“You cannot lie and deceive an entire country. His party is dying a strange death.”
Shas Chairman MK Aryeh Deri said that Bennett had deceived the right-wing camp and “established a government which did the most damage ever to Jewish identity and the weak.”
Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich, the Yamina leader’s bitter rival on the Orthodox-nationalist right, said Bennett’s decision to stand down from political life “is not his but that of the public, which was disgusted with him and vomited him out from its midst.”
Bennett burst onto the political scene in 2013 when his Bayit Yehudi party took 12 seats in the elections that year, making it the fourth-largest party in the Knesset.
He became economy minister in the 33rd government of Israel headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, while Bayit Yehudi MKs took several other ministerial portfolios.
The party under Bennett also joined Netanyahu’s next government, and took eight Knesset seats. Bennett managed to secure the powerful portfolio of justice minister for Shaked while he took on the role of education minister.
After the dissolution of the 34th government, in December 2018, Bennett broke away from Bayit Yehudi together with Shaked due to persistent tension with the party’s rabbinical leadership and set up the short-lived New Right party.
New Right failed to cross the electoral threshold in the April 2019 election, leaving Bennett out of the Knesset and out of power. But in a huge political reprieve for him, a new government could not be formed and new elections were called for September 2019.
Bennett then took a step back, allowing Shaked to lead the party which reunited with its former hardline, religiously conservative partners National Union and Tekuma, forming Yamina.
The party took seven seats in that election with Bennett eventually managing to take up the post of defense minister in Netanyahu’s interim government.
Following the March 2020 election, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party and the Likud formed a government that Bennett decided not to join.
When that government collapsed after little over a year, Bennett spent much of the next election campaign fending off accusations from Netanyahu that he would topple the long-time premier by forming a government with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.