Israel's election won't make Bennett PM, but he can be kingmaker

If Bennett negotiates well, he could receive the defense or health ministry or maybe both. It’s not PM, but it would be a win for him and his party.

Naftali Bennett and party members are seen with Yamina supporters at the party headquarters in Petah Tikva, on elections night, on March 23, 2021. (photo credit: AVI DISHI/FLASH90)
Naftali Bennett and party members are seen with Yamina supporters at the party headquarters in Petah Tikva, on elections night, on March 23, 2021.
(photo credit: AVI DISHI/FLASH90)
Yamina head Naftali Bennett won’t be crowned prime minister of Israel this year, but he can still be king.
Final election results are not expected until Friday, but with the majority of ballots counted, Yamina appears to have seven seats – far short of its initial expectations.
Those mandates, along with the five-seat Ra’am Party – now the second kingmaker – could make or break Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The prime minister had thought vaccines would be his passport to victory. Instead, victory could come through an uncanny combination of a right-wing Zionist and the head of the political arm of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel.
Ra’am is led by MK Mansour Abbas. He formed a relationship with Netanyahu in recent months, but the question still remains whether Abbas would join a Netanyahu-led coalition – or even whether Netanyahu and his extreme-right potential coalition would accept him – or whether he would choose to be a supportive exterior partner.
Bennett has come a long way since the previous elections.
Last March, in Israel’s third election in two years, he scored only six seats, and Netanyahu chose to leave him out of his coalition. The former hi-tech superstar could have chosen to whine on the sidelines and serve as an ineffective member of the opposition that everyone ignored.
Instead, he grabbed the coronavirus wagon by its reins and rode it into the limelight, presenting himself as the main alternative to Netanyahu and a serious candidate for prime minister.
That decision was made after April 2019 when he and party colleague MK Ayelet Shaked did not even pass the electoral threshold and after September 2019 – when Yamina ran under Shaked – and he and his loyalists received only a handful of seats.
But that was enough for Netanyahu to make him defense minister, a position that allowed him to plant the seeds for what ultimately became a well-developed reputation as a professional who could manage the coronavirus and not just another far-right politician.
Bennett worked hard as defense minister to show that he could be a universal figure. When he left office, he formed a civil coronavirus cabinet and published a book on the subject.
But he became so focused on coronavirus in the last few months that he let his political ally from the last two elections, MK Bezalel Smotrich, walk away and start his own party – a party that ultimately joined Netanyahu.
Smotrich scored six seats in this election, the results showed on Wednesday night – and most of them were votes taken from Bennett.
The Religious Zionist’s Party’s success was partly due to Bennett’s decision to set aside annexation and other key right-wing issues as he battled for better management of COVID-19.
The other reason was that Netanyahu persuaded disillusioned Yamina voters not to shift to his Likud Party but to Smotrich instead.
Back in January, it seemed that Bennett had a chance of becoming prime minister. Then, he was polling at around 14 seats.
However, as general exhaustion with lockdowns, masks and social distancing in the country increased, alongside vaccination rates, Bennett dropped in the polls. By February, he was down to around 10 seats and, earlier this month, already down to nine.
As the country vaccinated, Israelis no longer wanted to remember the painful zigzagging of the government during the coronavirus pandemic that took the lives of more than 6,000 people.
They did not want to vote for a policy that would help ensure there is a long-term strategy to manage another COVID-19 wave or crisis – even one that does not center on coronavirus.
Bennett presented the public with a coronavirus strategic plan that includes mass testing, border control and even monitoring people’s sewage.
“Because of the connection between the broad vaccination campaign and the high level of morbidity in Israel at the moment, it is not inconceivable that an Israeli mutation that can bypass the vaccine could be created here,” Bennett wrote in the plan he presented last month. “We must be prepared for that.”
But as the infection rate dropped – and even coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week that he believes a fourth wave is unlikely – Israelis voted to have a binge. They cast their ballots to forget about health professionals’ fear that a mutation could undo the hard work Israel has put into its mass vaccination campaign, if it is not caught early enough and stopped before it spreads.
Sure, some 700,000 Israelis remain out of work. But those who can afford it prefer a trip to Eilat over a tip about how to position their masks to best avoid infection.
If the virus were still raging across Israel, Bennett likely would have achieved better results. However, Bennett is not going to be prime minister, because more than five million Israelis cast their ballots with the same arm in which they received their “returning to life” jab.
That does not mean Bennett’s political life is over. On the contrary, as he said on election night, he will “do what is best for the country.”
He has committed to make no commitments until the final results are in.
A kingmaker is someone who can draw a higher price for his support because fate is in his hands. In this case, Bennett can decree a Netanyahu win, an unprecedented left-right-center anti-Netanyahu coalition or election No. 5.
If Bennett negotiates well, he could receive the Defense or Health ministry or maybe both. It’s not prime minister, but it would certainly be a win for him and his party.