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Potential kingmaker Bennett leaves options open, calls for national healing

In cryptic speech to supporters, Yamina leader promises that ‘what was will not be,’ while party says it will make decision that ‘is best for the public that voted for us’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina party seen with Yamina supporters at the party headquarters in Petah Tikva, on election night, on March 23, 2021. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)
Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina party seen with Yamina supporters at the party headquarters in Petah Tikva, on election night, on March 23, 2021. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, placed in the potential role of kingmaker, refused Tuesday night to say if he would grant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu key support to build a new coalition after apparently inconclusive elections, instead telling supporters only that “what was will not be.”

In what appeared to be purposefully vague comments, Bennett, whose party was predicted to get 7-8 seats, called for national healing and said “a real right-winger doesn’t hate, he unites.”

“Now is the time to heal and heal the rifts within the nation. Under the power you have entrusted in me, I will act with only one guiding principle: what is good for Israel,” Bennett told supporters at the Yamina election night event in Petah Tikva.

Hours before Bennett’s speech, exit polls predicted Netanyahu could form a razor-thin majority government of 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats following Israel’s fourth consecutive national election in two years — if Bennett joins his coalition.

Channel 12 gave 53 seats to the pro-Netanyahu bloc, eight to kingmaker Yamina, and 59 to the anti-Netanyahu bloc. Channel 13 gave 54 seats to Netanyahu’s assured backers, seven to Yamina and 59 to those opposed to the premier. The Kan public broadcaster also distributed the blocs 54-59, with Yamina again cast as tie-breaker with seven.

Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina party, arrives at a polling station to cast his ballots during the Israeli legislative elections in Ra’anana on March 23, 2021. (Gili Yaari / Flash90)

However, as the night progressed, updated results appeared to take away Netanyahu’s chances of forming a majority, even with Yamina.

An updated exit poll from Channel 12 news had Likud dropping to 30 seats, with Netanyahu’s bloc together with Yamina falling to 59 seats. The centrist Yesh Atid held steady as the second-largest party with 18 seats.

In the updated Channel 13 and Kan news exit polls, Netanyahu’s bloc and Yamina dropped one seat to 60.

Bennett cautioned his followers to wait for final results.

Yamina supporters at a party event in Petah Tikva on March 23, 2021. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

“It will take several days until we know exactly the results and we will wait patiently to see what the picture of the government is,” Bennett said. “I can guarantee one thing, every government that is formed will take care of all the citizens of the country — secular, religious, traditional ultra-Orthodox, right and left, Jews and Arabs, all citizens of Israel. ”

Appearing to leave all options on the table, Bennett promised to “act so Israel’s leadership moves from baseless hatred to free love.”

“As a former defense minister, I say that only a united nation can stand securely against its enemies,” he said, adding that judicial reform would be a main goal of his party.

He added, however, that despite his commitment to right-wing ideals, “we don’t intend to allow anyone to destroy the nation. What destroyed nations in the past is tribalism and we understand the weight of the responsibility.”

Bennett was previously part of Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties. Since being left out of the government Netanyahu formed last year with the Blue and White party, Bennett has become a vocal critic of the prime minister’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic but — unlike other rivals of the premier — has not ruled out joining a Likud-led government after the elections.

Bennett, however, on Monday ruled out joining a government led by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

Immediately after the exit polls placed it in the kingmaker position, Yamina said it will have to have a “serious discussion” about who to back as prime minister, saying it will make the decision that “is best for the public that voted for us.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel, party spokesman Moshe Basus said, “We will hope for the best and do the best by what the public gave us.

“Once the results are final, we will sit down and have a serious discussion on what is best for the public that voted for us,” Basus said.

Yamina supporters at the party headquarters in Petah Tikva, on elections night, on March 23, 2021. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

According to several Yamina activists and officials at the election night event, the public that voted for Yamina wants Netanyahu to remain in power.

Tzvi Blitz, a Petah Tivka council member on behalf of Yamina, said that “negotiations will be tough and Naftali will demand a lot, but he knows what the party wants, and it’s to keep the right in power.”

Blitz said that the “disappointing” initial prediction that Yamina would win just seven or eight seats, and not the nine or 10 it received in polls just before the election, would “force the party to realize its power and its limits.”

Saying that he believed Bennett to be “the heir to Netanyahu,” Noy Rosenfeld, number 19 on the Yamina slate, told The Times of Israel that the party leader would “do the right thing by all the people of Israel.”

Israel has been rocked by political turmoil for over two years. Two rounds of elections, in April 2019 and September 2019, failed to yield a winner, while a short-lived unity government formed after the third vote in March 2020 collapsed after less than a year. Tuesday’s election was largely regarded as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership, including his handling of the coronavirus crisis and his trial on corruption charges.

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