What sort of ‘victory’ would await a victorious Netanyahu?

The premier has focused obsessively on weakening his rival Bennett – and for good reason. Even if he hands Netanyahu his victory, the Yamina head will exact a painfully high price

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes his cabinet to inaugurate a new town named after then-US president Donald Trump in a gesture of appreciation for the US leader's recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights on June 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes his cabinet to inaugurate a new town named after then-US president Donald Trump in a gesture of appreciation for the US leader's recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights on June 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Early on Friday morning, Shin Bet and police forces began to gather inexplicably outside the Ra’anana home of Yamina leader Naftali Bennett.

“Today we woke up to companies of police and Shin Bet in front of the house,” Bennett said in a video released on social media from his home. “We didn’t understand what was happening. It turns out Netanyahu is planning his gimmick, to come here with some contract for me to sign, etc., etc.,” Bennett said.

Netanyahu, reporters soon learned, had planned a morning photo op in front of Bennett’s home with the demand that he sign a pledge of loyalty to a future Netanyahu government, as the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism have done.

It was a strange and embarrassing miscalculation by the Netanyahu campaign, an awkward harassment ready-made for Bennett to take advantage of.

מהבוקר כוחות משטרה ושב״כ מול ביתי עדכנו אותי שביבי מגיע להטריל אותי היום. ‏נתניהו, בוא לדיבייט. רק אל תתחרט ותבריז….

Posted by ‎נפתלי בנט – Naftali Bennett‎ on Friday, March 19, 2021

“I’m not signing anything,” Bennett said in the video.

“Because I don’t work for Netanyahu. I work for you, citizens of Israel. But I invite Bibi to a debate at the time of his choosing,” Bennett said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

In the end, the Likud campaign appeared to grasp how bad the optics were. Netanyahu never showed up.

Bennett would go on to claim on Friday that the stunt had cost taxpayers NIS 500,000 ($151,000) and forced police officers to wake up at 4 a.m. to secure the planned visit.

As Netanyahu would explain in a statement later in the day, “We had planned to [get a Netanyahu-supporting neighbor] to try to get Naftali Bennett’s agreement for a stable right-wing government and a commitment not to sit with Lapid in the government — with or without a rotation. Since Bennett said he wasn’t interested, we decided to call it off. That’s why if you vote [Likud] you’ll get Bennett as a minister in my government, but if you vote Bennett, you’ll get him as a minister in a Lapid government.”

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett in a video released to supporters on March 19, 2021, from his Ra’anana home. (Yamina)

Netanyahu’s campaign has obsessed about Bennett in recent days, raising his name in every interview in Netanyahu’s blitz of appearances across the Israeli media landscape. Netanyahu knows that he is not threatened by Lapid, whose potential center-left coalition lacks the numbers (assuming the polls bear out on election day) to defeat a Netanyahu-led right-wing-religious bloc. It is the Yamina-New Hope axis, even now with scarcely 10 seats apiece, whose combination of right-wing bona fides and strident critique of Netanyahu may prevent a unified right from coalescing behind him.

Netanyahu has worked ferociously — and with a great deal of success — to collapse that rightist anti-Netanyahu camp, warning that Sa’ar and Bennett will have no coalition without Lapid, and that therefore a vote for either is a vote for the center-left.

His demand for a loyalty pledge from Bennett is part of that effort. If Bennett says aloud that he’s willing to sit in a Lapid-led government, he’ll lose right-wing voters. If, on the other hand, he says aloud that he’ll back a Netanyahu government, he’ll lose those supporters attracted to his criticism of the prime minister.

Bennett has managed to avoid the trap by insisting he is himself running for prime minister and therefore supports himself for the post. He has promised not to support a “left-wing” government led by Lapid, but has refused to declare his loyalty to Netanyahu.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett takes a selfie with supporters in the southern city of Sderot on March 17, 2021. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Pyrrhic victory

But there’s more to Netanyahu’s targeting of Bennett than merely drawing votes to Likud. It’s about the day after the election, about the Bennett that Netanyahu will have to face if he manages to scrape together his long-awaited 61-seat majority, the Bennett who will then hold in his hands the key to that victory.

It is about all the trouble that Bennett is likely to cause him.

For all his dislike of Netanyahu and after a campaign premised on what he sees as Netanyahu’s errors and misplaced priorities, Bennett will almost certainly join the Netanyahu coalition. It’s hard to imagine him resisting the pressure from right-wing voters and parties and risking a fifth election if the right is within reach of a majority.

But from that point on, Bennett’s and Netanyahu’s interests diverge sharply.

Bennett does not trust Netanyahu. He won’t believe Netanyahu’s policy commitments or promises of influence. As Bennett himself has noted, Netanyahu changed Basic Laws and signed a written contract with Benny Gantz just to convince the latter that he truly intended to carry out their rotation agreement — which Netanyahu then ignored from the start.

But Bennett’s real fear at the next coalition negotiations isn’t that he’ll end up like Gantz. He does not have a large enough party to demand a rotation as prime minister — certainly not the first turn, and that’s the only turn worth having with Netanyahu. No, he fears ending up like Avigdor Liberman.

Being Liberman

Netanyahu appointed the Yisrael Beytenu leader to the defense minister post in June 2016, where he served until his resignation in November 2018 precipitated the collapse of the government and sparked the political deadlock of the past two years.

For over two years Liberman was Israel’s defense minister, yet instead of marking a triumphant apex of his political career, Liberman remembers that period as one of frustration and humiliation. Netanyahu systematically and visibly sidelined him, shifting all major decision-making on national security matters away from the position and leaving an astonished Liberman with almost no ability to influence defense policy.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and senior IDF officers visit an exercise simulating war with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorist group on September 4, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Liberman’s resignation in November 2018, ostensibly over Netanyahu’s decision to seek a ceasefire with Hamas after a round of violence along the Gaza border, was about Liberman’s frustration with the prime minister on matters closer to home.

Netanyahu had mistreated a senior partner, and Liberman promptly returned the favor when he dragged out coalition talks after the April 2019 elections until the last hour, before backing out of the talks and forcing Netanyahu to either call the first second-run elections in Israel’s history or risk handing the reins of power to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.

Netanyahu has paid a terrible cost for his sidelining of Liberman. Yet somehow that fact seems not to have instilled in Bennett any faith that Netanyahu won’t treat him the same way.

Bennett cannot reasonably ask for a rotation as prime minister, but there is a demand he might make — and, indeed, is being urged to make by allies and associates. He will ask not for Gantz’s rotation deal, but for the second major concession Gantz won from Netanyahu, the concession Netanyahu couldn’t avoid. Bennett will demand a “parity” government, a cabinet with an equal number of ministers under Bennett as under Netanyahu, where Bennett has the sole power to fire ministers under his control. Bennett would thereby also gain a veto over the cabinet agenda.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with then-defense minister and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett during a meeting with the heads of right-wing parties in the Knesset on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett’s leverage

Why could Bennett, at the head of perhaps 10 seats to Likud’s likely 30 (again, if polls bear out), make such a demand?

Three reasons: First, because he will have an explicit and probably also public offer from Lapid and/or Sa’ar of the very same as they seek to prevent a Netanyahu-led coalition. Even if Bennett clarifies that he’s headed to a Netanyahu government, the offer will remain on the table, on the sound principle that causing headaches for Netanyahu is the solemn responsibility of the new opposition. If that’s on offer from Lapid, say, Bennett is likely to demand the same of Netanyahu.

Second, for the obvious and prosaic reason that Bennett will control Netanyahu’s 61st seat, and will be the only faction of the new Netanyahu coalition that never pledged to support him. (Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party hasn’t signed a loyalty pledge, but has made explicit that it would only join a Netanyahu-led government.) Bennett will feel within his rights to charge a steep price for his support.

Finally, and most importantly, Bennett will have to justify joining the Netanyahu government to his voters. His bid for office rests on the premise that Netanyahu’s government has failed the country and that Netanyahu’s governing style has exacted a terrible cost for all Israelis. Just as Bennett will be hard-pressed to deny the right-wing its coalition, so he’ll be under immense pressure to show that the coalition he will be helping to form won’t be merely one more Netanyahu government in which he serves as just one more bit player and political servant.

Could Bennett afford to enter a Netanyahu coalition without such a demand?

Gantz’s experience proved that one shouldn’t take the second turn in a rotation agreement with Netanyahu — but it also showed the efficacy of a parity government for anyone trying to rein in the other side. Even now, by law, Gantz retains his veto over cabinet decisions and control over key ministries.

In short, from Bennett’s perspective, a demand for parity is sensible and necessary. It would ensure Netanyahu carries out his commitments and grant Bennett the kind of policy influence he believes he deserves.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud lawmakers at a rally in Tel Aviv on November 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)


And if Bennett takes that path, Netanyahu will face a painful dilemma. His next cabinet is already a crowded place.

A couple of months ago, when he was still trying to cajole Religious Zionism’s Smotrich to run on a joint list with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, Netanyahu promised Smotrich in return that he would grant the unified list double the number of cabinet posts it would ordinarily receive based on its size.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri, meanwhile, is polling not far behind Bennett and has been one of Netanyahu’s most loyal coalition allies in recent years. He, too, will demand his due.

Then comes United Torah Judaism’s turn. If there’s already a fire sale on cabinet seats, UTJ chair Moshe Gafni will demand to be similarly rewarded.

Netanyahu will find himself quickly running out of cabinet posts, especially serious and worthwhile ministries with real policy significance. It is only at the end of the negotiation process that Netanyahu will turn to his own Likud party, which will have watched plum post after plum post get scooped up in the negotiations.

Netanyahu is already said to be considering an idea bandied about last year after Likud MKs expressed bitterness at the number of ministries handed to Blue and White in the unity agreement. He may seek to rotate two or three ministers through each post during the next government’s term.

It’s a great way to give stately honors to a large number of unhappy MKs; it’s a terrible way to govern.

A demonstration of a polling station ahead of the upcoming elections, at the Central Elections Committee warehouse in Modi’in, February 23, 2021. (Flash90)

A sobering vision

Would Bennett take such a path, demanding as the price of his support the kind of influence that would risk making the next Netanyahu government enormous and unwieldy? On the one hand, he has argued passionately over the course of the campaign against the bloat and dysfunction of the outgoing parity government. On the other hand, it’s hard to see another path that frees him from having to rely on Netanyahu’s promises.

Or perhaps Netanyahu himself will act more wisely with Bennett than he did with Liberman. When Netanyahu first handed Liberman the Defense Ministry in June 2016, it was because he needed him. Netanyahu had exactly 61 seats in his coalition. Liberman joining the government grew that coalition to 67 seats, freeing Netanyahu from the need to cater to the whims of every backbench MK each time they threatened to vote against the government.

But Netanyahu’s treatment of Liberman pushed Yisrael Beytenu forever beyond his reach. Sixty-one seats were once Netanyahu’s floor; they have proven over the past three years to be his political ceiling. If the right once again manages to squeak past the 61-seat mark — even several seats past the mark — it will now be Bennett who holds the key to stability, and who is determined not to end up as Netanyahu’s newest Liberman. Can Netanyahu find a way to offer Bennett the assurances he needs without resorting to the guarantees of parity?

On Sunday morning, Likud sources told reporters that the party was considering an offer Bennett would have eagerly taken just two years ago: to fold Bennett’s party formally into Likud, giving Bennett a shot at the top job in the ruling party after Netanyahu. The very idea is a sign of how worried Netanyahu is over the scenario described above. It’s also unlikely to work. The Bennett of 2021 no longer trusts Netanyahu to take such offers and promises at face value.

For Netanyahu, then, a sobering vision of potential “victory.” A bloated, resentful, divided government, ostensibly coherently right-wing but divvied up among competing and antagonistic factions that campaigned on accusations of each other’s disloyalty and incompetence, and that plan to campaign on those things again in the future.

How would such a government govern? And how long could it last?

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