Bennett is Israel’s next PM. Or Sa’ar. Or maybe Netanyahu. For sure.

The prime minister’s opponents now draw a majority of right-wing voters in polls. But can they stick together long enough to replace him?

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Then-MKs Gideon Sa'ar, right, and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset plenum on February 24, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Then-MKs Gideon Sa'ar, right, and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset plenum on February 24, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Last week, Naftali Bennett looked set to become Israel’s inevitable next prime minister. This week, with Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar announcing his own run for the premiership, a clear-cut race just got complicated.

An election hasn’t been called yet. It too was all but inevitable just a week ago; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had left Blue and White leader Benny Gantz with nothing to lose, no longer even pretending to intend to follow through on their rotation agreement.

If a state budget isn’t passed by December 23, elections are triggered automatically. Netanyahu does not appear to have a parliamentary majority for preventing it, and though Blue and White would prefer to avoid an election, the price Gantz is expected to demand to save Netanyahu (and himself) from an election is steep, and simple. He’ll want new legislation closing the loopholes in the coalition agreement he signed in May and ensuring he’ll be premier come November. Netanyahu was asked by reporters this week if he’d agree to such legislation if it meant avoiding elections. He has steadfastly refused to answer.

So even now, elections are almost certain. Almost.

Why do some observers think elections may be avoided after all? Because Netanyahu is desperate. His path to victory has all but evaporated, and it’s no longer just the center or left that seeks his ouster. There are now more voters who tell pollsters they’ll vote for a right-wing party committed to Netanyahu’s ouster than voters who will vote for parties that support him.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett during a visit in downtown Jerusalem on August 5, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Naftali Bennett, the electoral math showed, was all but certain to be Israel’s next prime minister. Netanyahu was in desperate straits. Then, in his dramatic announcement on Tuesday, Gideon Sa’ar entered the race and confused the math. It’s not yet clear if Sa’ar weakened Netanyahu or weakened his opponents.

How Bennett was going to win

For simplicity’s sake, we will use a single recent poll to make the argument that Bennett was the inevitable next prime minister of the state of Israel. The poll was released December 3 by Channel 12, its results representative of countless other polls from different pollsters and media outlets over the past five months. It did not, of course, include Sa’ar in an independent run (more on this below).

The numbers: Likud got 30 seats, Yamina 21, Yesh Atid 17, Joint List 12, Blue and White 10, Shas 8, United Torah Judaism 8, Yisrael Beytenu 7, Meretz 7. The survey also showed that a re-entry of Yesh Atid and Blue and White into the old Blue and White alliance, but with Lapid at the top of the list, would get 25 seats, two less than when they ran apart. Likud and Yamina each got one more.

This was how a political commentator on Channel 12 explained the poll: “An alliance between Lapid and Gantz under Lapid makes the united party the second-largest (bigger than Bennett). On the other hand, the union costs the center-left bloc two seats and puts the right at 69 seats.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, in the Knesset plenum, October 31, 2016. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The commentary was typical of how observers usually interpret Israeli polls and election-day results — which party is the largest, which “bloc” is growing and which shrinking.

But it’s wrong. Party size doesn’t decide elections, and the “blocs” don’t reflect the choices party leaders face once the dust of election day settles and everyone starts counting the Knesset seats. Israeli elections are decided weeks after election day by the convoluted calculus of parliamentary alliance-building.

In the past three races — April and September 2019 and in March of this year — Likud and Bennett’s parties (New Right in March 2019, then Yamina in the next two rounds) ran as allies. But that’s changed, as Yamina was left out of the coalition in May and became a magnet for centrist and right-wing voters disenchanted with Likud’s handling of the pandemic.

Bennett no longer has a political interest in being part of a Netanyahu-led bloc, and therefore it no longer makes sense to read a 69-seat “right” into that poll.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, December 2, 2020. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

Netanyahu’s loyalists in Likud and the Haredi factions lack a coalition without Bennett. At 21 seats and holding the keys to the kingdom, Bennett can and will demand a rotation as prime minister. The prospect of surrendering the premier’s seat to Bennett is galling to Netanyahu, especially since Bennett would only agree to go first. After Netanyahu’s treatment of Gantz, no one is likely to agree to be second to Netanyahu in any rotation.

But Netanyahu won’t have many alternatives, based on pre-Sa’ar polls. He has spent a long career alienating the very party leaders he will now need to form his coalition — Bennett and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman control 28 seats in the Channel 12 poll, nearly a quarter of the Knesset, and both find the prospect of again serving under Netanyahu just as galling as he finds serving under them.

Netanyahu may try to reach out to Liberman, if only to weaken Bennett’s hand, but Liberman can’t afford to be seen by his secularist constituents to be propping up a Likud-Haredi coalition, and Liberman has already said openly that he seeks to oust Netanyahu from power once and for all.

What other options are left to the prime minister? He may try to reach out to Ra’am, the conservative Muslim party that in recent months has said it is willing to cooperate politically with the Israeli right in order to advance its constituents’ concerns. But even in its best-ever showings, Ra’am scarcely broke the four-seat mark.

It’s enough to make Netanyahu pause and wonder if he isn’t better off passing the absent state budget laws (assuming he can at this late date) and seeing his original rotation deal with Gantz through to the end. A Prime Minister Gantz doesn’t threaten him nearly as much as a Prime Minister Bennett.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset, November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Would Netanyahu agree to Bennett becoming prime minister? Is there any possibility that Bennett might agree to be second in the rotation, and trust that he can amend the relevant laws and seal up any possible escape clauses of the sort Netanyahu used to avoid the rotation with Gantz?

Or more to the point, why would Bennett risk everything with an unreliable Netanyahu — when he has an easier route to the premiership?

While Netanyahu contemplates the unhappy choices above, Lapid will face a similar problem. Assuming the polling of recent months bears out, Lapid, too, will lack any easy-to-discern majority. (The same holds true if a different champion of the center-left is parachuted in; no potential replacement to Lapid has polled better than him in recent weeks.)

As soon as the dust settles on election night, and possibly even before the election results are final, Lapid was planning on calling Bennett and making the only offer he could, the one Netanyahu couldn’t stand to make: He’d propose a unity government with a rotation deal for the prime minister’s chair, with Bennett going first.

Before Sa’ar’s entry into the race, Yesh Atid and Yamina, together with easy partners Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White, polled at 55 seats. Add Sa’ar into the mix based on early polls and the combination rises to an outright majority of 63. But even if one of those three additions is missing, left-wing Meretz may well join, even just as an outside supporting vote, for the sake of ousting Netanyahu. The coalition may also have the support of some significant part of the Arab-majority parties making the same calculation.

Yair Lapid (left) and Benny Gantz speak to supporters in Tel Aviv, on February 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Haredi parties, too, may want to join once the coalition coalesces. Shas or UTJ may seem a strange partner for such a secularist-heavy coalition, but the Haredi parties know they cannot draw the funds their educational and religious institutions need to survive if they get pushed to the opposition. They’ve sat with secularist parties before. As long as the Bennett-Lapid government looks stable, it’ll be a buyer’s market when it comes to attracting Haredi factions on terms Lapid and Liberman could stomach.

Sa’ar confuses the math

It must be said: Sa’ar may have changed very little. Adding Sa’ar into the mix means Netanyahu may turn to Sa’ar instead of Bennett after the election. Sa’ar polled at 17 seats (behind Bennett’s 19) in the first poll after his Tuesday announcement, and between 15 and 18 in subsequent polls. But in Sa’ar Netanyahu will find an angry former Likud no. 2 who explicitly vowed on Tuesday not to sit with him. Campaign promises are no guarantee of future behavior, of course, but they can at least be viewed as a signal of a candidate’s hoped-for outcome. Given Sa’ar’s long history of butting heads with Netanyahu, it’s reasonable to expect that he won’t rush to Netanyahu’s rescue.

But Sa’ar nevertheless changed the dynamic of the race, and it’s not yet clear what the repercussions will be.

First, the polls. Every major television outlet produced a poll Wednesday that bore out the essential trends of the first one from Tuesday night.

Likud MK Gideon Saar arrives with his wife Geula Even-Sa’ar at a voting station to cast his vote in the Likud leadership race, in Tel Aviv, on December 26, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The polls produced by channels 12 and 13 and the public broadcaster Kan gave Sa’ar, respectively, 16, 15, and 18 seats.

In all cases Sa’ar weakens Netanyahu, dropping Likud between 3 and four seats to 26, 28 and 25. But he also weakens Bennett, dropping Yamina from a stable months-long run in the roughly 19-23 range to 18, 16, and 17.

The key point: A Netanyahu-Shas-UTJ-Yamina coalition — the easy coalition Netanyahu needs, and the one Bennett could give him in exchange for a rotation — drops one seat below a Knesset majority in the Channel 12 poll, to just 60 seats. In Channel 13 it’s 58 and in the Kan poll it’s 57.

That is, Sa’ar knocks Bennett off his perch as the kingmaker holding all the cards.

But Sa’ar also pushes Netanyahu below a critical horizon for the Likud leader: With Sa’ar there is now a center-right coalition in the polls that may not need the left or the Arab factions to oust Netanyahu from power. A coalition made up of Yamina, Sa’ar, Yesh Atid, Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu — all led by politicians bitterly opposed to Netanyahu and openly seeking his ouster — nets 61, 60, and 63 seats, respectively.

(From L-R) Then-deputy defense minister Eli Ben Dahan, then-education minister Naftali Bennett, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman pictured during a ceremony at the Netiv Ha’avot outpost on July 23, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

So which is it? Is Sa’ar helping Netanyahu by weakening his most plausible challenger Bennett? Or is he weakening Netanyahu further by opening a pathway for a center-right parliamentary majority without him?

Or put another way, can Bennett, Sa’ar, and Lapid, three ambitious claimants to succeed Netanyahu each at the helm of a roughly similar-sized party, trust each other and cooperate for long enough to oust Israel’s longest-serving premier? Will their cooperation survive, for example, a Netanyahu rotation offer to the largest of them?

No one knows the answer to that question yet. Nor is the current state of play the final word. Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot is still contemplating his jump into politics. A poll Wednesday found Sa’ar’s new party swells by four to five seats, hitting 22, if it is joined by Eisenkot and ex-Kulanu MK Yifat Shasha-Biton. Bennett, too, now leading a five-seat faction, has yet to present a full list of candidates reflecting his poll strength; the names on that list may move his numbers up or down. And what of Lapid? Would he reincorporate Gantz — potentially rising to 25 according to last week’s Channel 12 poll?

The anti-Netanyahu camp has grown dramatically over the past two years, but it has also grown more crowded. Netanyahu failed to win an outright majority in the last three rounds of elections, finally cobbling together an unstable and dysfunctional coalition only by promising a rotation deal he never intended to keep. His path to victory has only narrowed since then, and it’s hard to see his current challengers falling for the rotation gambit themselves. Will Bennett, Sa’ar or even Lapid agree to sit with him at all? Would he be able to offer stronger assurances than he gave Gantz? Would he agree to handing one of them the first turn as premier?

No wonder so many now expect Netanyahu to do everything in his power to delay the vote, even going so far as to pass a state budget so he can live to fight another day.

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