It was a dramatic message as these things go.
“I told (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu and I will say it here – Likud can count on the votes of the Yamina party to support the formation of a right-wing government,” Naftali Bennett told cameras on Monday afternoon.
Here it is. After a long and grueling election campaign in which he refused to commit to either the Netanyahu or anti-Netanyahu camps, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett finally made his choice.
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His party would support a Likud-led coalition, bringing Netanyahu̵
Why, then, does Netanyahu seem unconvinced of Bennett’s good intentions? Why does the leader of religious Zionism, Bezalel Smotric, continue to insist that Bennett plans to form a government with Jair Lapid and the political left?
The answer allows us to draw a picture of this political moment and reveals much about the strange new norm of Israeli politics.
Best laid out plans
Bennett leads a small faction of only seven seats. But political stalemate has put him at the heart of coalition disputes on both sides. He is not exactly the “kingmaker”, in the sense that his support is not enough to put one of the parties on top. But he is the obligatory partner of both Netanyahu and Lapid if they want to have hope of forming a coalition.
That’s why both sides have spent the last week offering him the moon.
Likud reportedly offered Bennet a rotation deal that would include Netanyahu as prime minister for the first two years and Bennett for the next two.
If the idea was really floating – reliable sources say it is, Likud denies – it was not a serious offer. Netanyahu now leads Israel’s 35th government for 73 years; Israeli governments last only two years on average. Nor does Bennett trust Netanyahu to keep a deal. The prime minister is even now working to torpedo the still-rotating deal he signed with Benny Ganz.
Bennett reportedly responded to Likud’s proposal with one of his: Netanyahu will receive the first year, then Bennett will be prime minister for two years, after which Netanyahu will return to the presidency for the last year of government . It’s a frivolous proposal like Netanyahu’s proposal – and a message clarifying Bennett’s distrust by placing the second half of Netanyahu’s half after Bennett.
For Netanyahu’s supporters, both offers are unpleasant. Netanyahu leads a 30-seat faction. Bennett is only seven.
But for Bennett, the proposals do not come without pitfalls. He campaigned, suggesting that Netanyahu’s policies had failed and that he needed to be replaced. Bennett cannot face the electorate again – probably very soon – if he seems too eager to enter another Netanyahu government. With or without a rotation deal, Bennett must receive significant concessions from Netanyahu for ministries and political influence.
Sources close to Shas leader Aryeh Deri said earlier this week that any rotation with Bennett would have to become a tripartite deal involving Deri in the rotation. In the end, Shass has nine places compared to Bennett’s seven.
Derry didn’t want the prime minister’s chair seriously. He explained to Netanyahu that he would not agree to a Netanyahu-Bennet rotation.
Netanyahu may have asked for back pressure to help reduce Bennett’s demands. Either way, Derry has a point. There is an inherent paradox in Bennett’s position. Bennett must demand enough from Netanyahu to justify joining the government. Yet it is precisely these demands that could make the new government untenable.
Netanyahu has already promised the Religious Zionism Party twice as many ministers as the size of their faction gives them (to make them unite with Ozma Yehudit). Bennett, meanwhile, is demanding rotation, a possible parity government, and no doubt a large number of senior ministerial posts.
After giving so much to the religious-Zionist factions, Netanyahu will not be able to offer less to his loyal supporters in the parties of Haredi Hada and Judaism of the United Torah. It’s not just about the ego. Haredi’s parties are under pressure from disgruntled voters who accuse them of not zealously defending the interests of the Haredi community in the outgoing government. They will not stand by while Netanyahu leads a cabinet fire sale.
Once Bennett, I watched, UTJ boss Moshe Gaffney and Des of Chassis were satisfied, then came the hard work of satisfying Likud’s many competing ambitions.
The more Netanyahu gives in to Bennett, the more he has to give in to the rest of his coalition, and the more bloated and clumsy the next government grows. This is not a good start for a government that is likely to be narrow and unstable to begin with.
Reports from sources familiar with the coalition talks say Bennett has been in regular contact with Lapid and New Hope leader Gideon Saar for the past two weeks. According to them, these contacts are a quiet channel for informal negotiations in the coalition.
Does Bennett negotiate with Saar and Lapid, even when trying to make a deal with Likud?
In other words, is Bennett playing hard to reach Netanyahu to raise his price, or is he doing it to ensure that Netanyahu ultimately fails to form a government, opening the political space for a coalition with Lapid? After all, Lapid has publicly offered Bennett something Netanyahu never has: The first entry into the rotation.
Netanyahu seems to believe that Bennett is striving for the latter.
At a meeting between the two on Friday, Netanyahu asked Yamina’s leader to consider a Likud proposal to unite Bennett’s faction with the Likud Knesset, fulfilling Bennett’s long-held dream of returning with a large support base for his former party.
But Bennett rejected the idea altogether. For now, party lists are irrelevant, he told Netanyahu, because in any case there will be no fifth election. Bennett reportedly turned down the offer again when the two men met on Tuesday.
Bennett’s unexpected reassurance that there were no new elections on the horizon raised suspicions in Likud that he had already signed a coalition deal with Lapid. How else could he be so sure there would be no new election?
Still, Bennett sticks to his weapons, promising to support Netanyahu, although he says he keeps the Lapid Canal alive and well. Why?
Simply: So that the blame for Netanyahu’s failure does not fall on him.
Bezalel Smotric spent the past week insulting Bennett’s alleged plan to form a “left-wing government” with Lapid. Netanyahu hides such suspicions. But none of that matters if Netanyahu doesn’t have 61 seats with Bennett on board. So far, at least, Bennett has not denied him this victory. It is Smotric. Smotric has firmly refused to accept any coalition support from the Islamic Party of Raam, a fact that has prevented Netanyahu from concluding a parliamentary majority for his government – a fact that Bennett can count on.
The president is impatient
Last week, President Reuven Rivlin suggested that he did not have much patience to continue coalition talks. He is unlikely to extend Netanyahu’s deadline until May 4th or choose another candidate if Netanyahu fails. If Netanyahu does not have a coalition by May 4th, the mandate to form a government is likely to go directly to the Knesset, which will then have 21 days to vote in a government or, failing that, to be dissolved by a fifth election.
This strict schedule poses a dilemma for Bennett. He cannot be seen negotiating with Lapid while negotiations with Netanyahu are still ongoing. But 21 days is a short time to assemble the kind of complex and internally divided coalition that the Lapid-Bennett government would need. He cannot wait until Netanyahu’s term ends in three weeks.
Bennett’s lever will also drop dramatically after Netanyahu fails. Lapid is now offering Bennett the first rank as prime minister in an attempt to make sure he does not hand over the government to Netanyahu. But since Netanyahu’s 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 is not afraid of a new round of the ballot box. His party, Yesh Atid, has proven its courage and resilience in the eight years since its founding.
That is, anything Bennett failed to get from Lapid in their quiet backchannel talks before May 4 may find that it is no longer available on May 5.
A seven-seat prime minister? Really?
Can Naftali Bennett and his seven-seat faction really negotiate for the prime minister’s office? Likud thinks so.
A senior Likud employee told Channel 12 this week that this was not only a possible outcome, but likely.
“We will let Bennett and Saar try to deal with Meretz and Labor and the Joint List, we will make it difficult for them with accounts that will make them uncomfortable,” the Likud official said defiantly. “Let’s see [Yamina’s Ayelet] Shaken deal with [Labor leader Merav] Michael or [Meretz leader] Nice Horowitz. We are not afraid of the prospect of sitting in opposition. “
The executive branch led by Yamina would be unprecedented. But Israel’s political system has systematically shattered one long-held assumption over the past two years. The April 2019 elections were the first in Israeli history to fail to lead a government. The basic laws have been changed to create “deputy prime ministers” and “parity” governments. The government has not passed an updated budget law since 2018, another unprecedented achievement.
Prime Minister Bennett will be just one of a long list of the first to emerge from the political stalemate.
Perhaps the only sure conclusion from the political acrobatics that is underway is that the crisis of the last two years is far from over. With the exception of a dramatic retreat from one party or another, any Netanyahu coalition that manages to build together will be cumbersome and unstable, and any coalition of Lapid and Bennett will identify even more.
Or as Likud Public Security Minister Amir Ohana told President Rivlin last week, “If everyone keeps their campaign promises, we will go to the fifth election.”