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Analysis

Naftali Bennett made himself a kingmaker, but will there be a coronation?

The Yamina leader is playing hard to get in coalition talks. Is he trying to secure an influential role in the next Netanyahu government, or doing his best to torpedo it?

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett arrives for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his official residence in Jerusalem on April 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett arrives for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his official residence in Jerusalem on April 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was a dramatic announcement, as these things go.

“I told (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu and I will say it here, too — Likud can count on the votes of the Yamina party to support forming a right-wing government,” Naftali Bennett declared on Monday afternoon to the cameras.

There it was. After a long and grueling election campaign in which he refused to commit to either the pro-Netanyahu or anti-Netanyahu camps, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett had finally made his choice.

His party would support a Likud-led coalition, bringing Netanyahu’s parliamentary support — now made up of Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Religious Zionism and Yamina — to 59 seats. That’s just two shy of a Knesset majority that would enable Netanyahu to pull the country out of its two-year nightmare of repeat elections.

Why, then, does Netanyahu seem unconvinced of Bennett’s good intentions? Why does Religious Zionism leader Betzalel Smotrich continue to insist that Bennett is planning to establish a government with Yair Lapid and the political left?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on April 12, 2021, before a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The answer allows us to piece together a picture of this political moment and reveals much about the weird new normal of Israeli politics.

Best-laid plans

Bennett leads a small faction of just seven seats. But the political deadlock has placed him at the heart of the coalition wrangling on both sides. He isn’t exactly the “kingmaker,” in the sense that his support isn’t enough to put either side over the top. But he is the indispensable partner both Netanyahu and Lapid need if they are to have any hope of forming a coalition.

That’s why both sides have spent the last week offering him the moon.

Likud has reportedly offered Bennett a rotation deal that would see Netanyahu serve as prime minister for the first two years and Bennett for the next two.

If the idea was indeed floated — reliable sources say it was, Likud denies it — it wasn’t a serious offer. Netanyahu now leads Israel’s 35th government in 73 years; Israeli governments last just two years on average. Nor does Bennett trust Netanyahu to honor any deal. The prime minister is even now working to torpedo the still-in-force rotation deal he signed with Benny Gantz.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett arrives for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on April 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett reportedly responded to the Likud offer with one of his own: Netanyahu would get the first year, then Bennett would be prime minister for two years, then Netanyahu would return to the PM’s chair for the government’s final year. It’s an offer as unserious as Netanyahu’s — and a message clarifying Bennett’s distrust by placing the second half of Netanyahu’s half-term after Bennett.

For Netanyahu’s supporters, both offers are galling. Netanyahu leads a 30-seat faction. Bennett has just seven.

But for Bennett, too, the offers don’t come without pitfalls. He ran his campaign on the premise that Netanyahu’s policies had failed and that he should be replaced. Bennett cannot face the electorate again — possibly quite soon — if he appears over-eager to rush into yet another Netanyahu government. With or without a rotation deal, Bennett must obtain from Netanyahu significant concessions on ministries and policy influence.

Knock-on effects

Sources close to Shas leader Aryeh Deri said earlier this week that any rotation with Bennett would have to become a three-way deal that included Deri in the rotation. Shas, after all, has nine seats to Bennett’s seven.

Deri wasn’t seriously demanding the prime minister’s chair. He was clarifying to Netanyahu that he would not agree to a Netanyahu-Bennett rotation.

Shas party head Aryeh Deri casts his vote in the general elections in Jerusalem on March 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s possible Netanyahu asked for the counter-pressure to help lower Bennett’s demands. Either way, Deri has a point. There’s an inherent paradox in Bennett’s position. Bennett must demand enough from Netanyahu to justify joining the government. Yet those very demands could make the new government untenable.

Netanyahu has already promised the Religious Zionism party twice as many ministers as their faction size grants them (to get them to unite with Otzma Yehudit). Bennett, meanwhile, is demanding a rotation, a possible “parity” government, and undoubtedly also a large number of senior ministerial posts.

After handing so much to the religious-Zionist factions, Netanyahu won’t be able to offer less to his loyal supporters in the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. It’s not just a question of ego. The Haredi parties are under pressure from disaffected voters who accuse them of failing to zealously defend the Haredi community’s interests in the outgoing government. They won’t stand on the sidelines while Netanyahu oversees a fire sale on cabinet posts.

Once Bennett, Smotrich, UTJ chief Moshe Gafni and Shas’s Deri are all satisfied, then comes the hard work of satisfying the many competing ambitions within Likud.

United Torah Judaism MKs talk before delivering a press statement after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s House in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The more Netanyahu concedes to Bennett, the more he must concede to the rest of his coalition and the more bloated and unwieldy the next government grows. That’s not a good start for a government likely to be narrow and unstable to begin with.

The alternative

Reports from sources familiar with the coalition talks say that Bennett has been in regular contact with Lapid and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar over the past two weeks. Those contacts, they say, amount to a quiet backchannel for unofficial coalition talks.

Is Bennett negotiating with Sa’ar and Lapid even as he tries to hammer out a deal with Likud?

Or put another way: Is Bennett playing hard-to-get with Netanyahu to drive up his price, or is he doing so in order to ensure Netanyahu ultimately fails to form a government, opening up the political space for a coalition with Lapid? Lapid, after all, has publicly offered Bennett something Netanyahu never will: The first go in the rotation.

Netanyahu seems to believe Bennett is aiming for the latter.

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

At a meeting on Friday between the two, Netanyahu reportedly asked the Yamina leader to consider a Likud offer to merge Bennett’s faction with Likud’s Knesset slate, fulfilling Bennett’s longtime dream of returning with a large base of support to his former party.

But Bennett dismissed the idea out of hand. Party slates are irrelevant for now, he told Netanyahu, because there won’t be a fifth election in any case. Bennett reportedly rejected the offer yet again when the two men met on Tuesday.

Bennett’s unexpected confidence that no new election was on the horizon raised suspicion in Likud that he’d already sealed a coalition deal with Lapid. How else could he be so certain there won’t be another election?

Yet Bennett has stuck to his guns, promising to support Netanyahu even as he reportedly keeps the Lapid channel alive and well. Why?

Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas (L) and Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich (R). (Sraya Diamant/David Cohen/Flash90)

Simple: So that the blame for Netanyahu’s failure doesn’t fall on him.

Betzalel Smotrich has spent the past week railing at Bennett’s alleged plan to form a “left-wing government” with Lapid. Netanyahu harbors similar suspicions. But none of that matters if Netanyahu doesn’t have 61 seats with Bennett onboard. For now, at least, it isn’t Bennett who’s denying him that victory. It is Smotrich. Smotrich has held firm in his refusal to accept any coalition support from the Islamic party Ra’am, a fact that has prevented Netanyahu from locking in a parliamentary majority for his government — a fact Bennett may be counting on.

The president is impatient

President Reuven Rivlin suggested last week that he had little patience for dragging out the coalition talks. He’s unlikely to extend Netanyahu’s May 4 deadline or select another candidate if Netanyahu fails. If Netanyahu has no coalition by May 4, the mandate for forming a government is likely to pass directly to the Knesset, which will then have 21 days to vote in a government or, failing that, to dissolve to a fifth election.

That tight timetable presents Bennett with a dilemma. He cannot be seen to negotiate with Lapid while the negotiations with Netanyahu are still underway. But 21 days is a short time for cobbling together the kind of complicated and internally divided coalition that a Lapid-Bennett government would require. He cannot wait until Netanyahu’s mandate ends in three weeks’ time.

Then-education minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid during a ceremony at Netiv Ha’avot, at the West Bank’s Elazar settlement, on July 23, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Bennett’s leverage will also diminish dramatically once Netanyahu fails. Lapid is now offering Bennett the first turn as premier in a bid to ensure he doesn’t hand Netanyahu his government. But once that Netanyahu government is no longer an option, why would Lapid keep that offer on the table? Lapid is one of the few faction leaders in the 24th Knesset who doesn’t fear another round at the ballot box. His Yesh Atid party has proven its mettle and resilience in the eight years since its founding.

That is, anything Bennett fails to obtain from Lapid in their quiet backchannel talks before May 4, he may find no longer on offer on May 5.

A seven-seat prime minister? Really?

Can Naftali Bennett and his seven-seat faction really negotiate their way to the Prime Minister’s Office? Likud thinks so.

One senior Likud official told Channel 12 this week that it’s not only a possible outcome, it’s a likely one.

“We’ll let Bennett and Sa’ar try to get on with Meretz and Labor and the Joint List, we’ll embarrass them with bills that will make them uncomfortable,” the Likud official said defiantly. “Let’s see [Yamina’s Ayelet] Shaked deal with [Labor leader Merav] Michaeli or [Meretz leader] Nitzan Horovitz. We’re not frightened at the prospect of sitting in the opposition.”

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett arrives for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his official residence in Jerusalem on April 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Yamina-led executive branch would be unprecedented. But Israel’s political system has systematically shattered one longstanding assumption after another over the past two years. The April 2019 election was the first in Israel’s history that failed to result in a government. Basic laws were changed to create “alternate” prime ministers and “parity” governments. The government hasn’t passed an updated budget law since 2018, another unprecedented achievement.

A Prime Minister Bennett would be just one in a long list of firsts to emerge from the political deadlock.

Perhaps the only sure takeaway from the political acrobatics now underway is that the crisis of the past two years is far from over. Barring a dramatic defection by one party or another, any coalition Netanyahu succeeds in cobbling together will be unwieldy and unstable, and any coalition Lapid and Bennett string together even more so.

Or as Likud’s Public Security Minister Amir Ohana put it to President Rivlin last week, “If everyone keeps their election promises, we’re going to a fifth election.”

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