Yamina leader Naftali Bennett has had his ups and downs in politics.
There were elections that went well, like his first in 2013, when he led his party to 12 seats. And there were also elections like in April 2019, when his party did not cross the electoral threshold.
This time around, Bennett appears more confident and less stressed than ever.
Perhaps it is because polls have indicated that he will be the kingmaker for the March 23 election, who can choose to coronate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or one of his rivals.
It could be because he has become experienced enough to understand that if one election does not go well, there will be another one just around the corner.
Or maybe it is because he knows something we don’t know about how he intends to capture the premiership and replace Netanyahu himself.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post at his Yamina Party’s campaign office near his home in Ra’anana, Bennett speaks as though he holds the key to an as yet unsolved mystery that will be revealed in the weeks and months ahead.
“I HAVE a road map to set egos aside and form a right-wing government,” he says, before making reference to the formula considered the world’s most guarded secret. “Like Coca-Cola, I can’t tell you what my secret sauce is.”
The 130-year-old Coca-Cola Company has said from the start that its formula will never be revealed. The company boasts that only two employees are privy to the complete formula at any given time, and they are not permitted to travel together. When one dies, the other must choose a successor within the company and impart the secret to that person.
But just like with Coke, clues have been revealed that could at least partially reveal the mystery.
“There are three things mainstream Israelis want,” Bennett says. “They want competent right-wing leadership; to depart from Netanyahu respectfully; and to avoid a fifth election. Only Yamina can deliver all three, because it is not boycotting parties or joining the pro-Netanyahu or anti-Netanyahu blocs.”
That statement about his priorities, which Bennett has been saying in every interview, is peculiar, because why would he not join the anti-Netanyahu bloc, if he shares its goal of removing him from office? Is he admitting that he says he can join a Netanyahu-led government only because he has no intention of doing so?
“I decided to be the responsible adult,” he says. “I know that if I would say “anyone but Bibi,” I’d go up five mandates in the polls. But we need to form a government, and we need this leverage to achieve our three goals.”
Bennett makes it clear that he is looking well past March 23. He is already running in the contests that will be held afterward to receive the mandate to form a government, when that “leverage” could pay off handsomely.
When asked where he will be on March 24, he says he will be taking his four children to the beach. He says he made that promise to his son David, who is in third grade.
Just like the elections when Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman was kingmaker and fled to Eastern Europe without a cellphone, Bennett intends to play hard to get.
The question is how long he can play that game. Sources close to him revealed that he intends to play it for months. Netanyahu could receive the first mandate from President Reuven Rivlin to build a coalition, and opposition leader Yair Lapid could receive the second, or vice versa, and both of them could fail.
Just like before the current government was formed, there would then be time for a third candidate to obtain the support of 61 MKs, and that is where Bennett could be aiming when he speaks about needing only two to four more seats beyond the 11-13 Yamina currently receives in the polls.
“I need 15 seats, which would be the critical mass needed to be able to form a government,” Bennett says.
Winning two or three more mandates would put him in front of New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar in the pecking order. It could also guarantee his party would win more seats than the Joint List, which is not expected to join any coalition, and put more mandates in play to get to 61.
Bennett does not shy away from criticism of his rivals for the hearts of the voters and that of Rivlin, who may end up deciding who will be the next prime minister.
“New Hope will certainly be a partner,” he says. “But the problem with them is that they have too many recycled politicians from other parties. That is not what we need today. We need doers – not politicians who swore allegiance to Bibi, then defected and now say he’s terrible.”
Bennett says Sa’ar disappointed him by talking about new and clean politics, while running an anonymous smear campaign against him, using articles published online by Outbrain that were deemed illegal by the Central Elections Committee.
“I am used to that from Netanyahu,” he says. “I thought Sa’ar would be different. When he was caught doing this, he said he wanted a ceasefire, which is funny coming from someone running a one-way smear campaign. Time will tell if he stops.”
Asked why he is so quick to dismiss joining a government led by Lapid, who has not attacked him recently, Bennett says Lapid’s recent silence does not erase views Bennett deems too left-wing and anti-religious.
“He was always against the communities in Judea and Samaria and wrote that the government’s money can be found between Yitzhar and Itamar,” Bennett says. “His approach is the opposite of mine on Judea and Samaria and Yiddishkeit. My vision is of a Jewish country with Jewish values and integrity for the Land of Israel. I wouldn’t want someone with clear left-wing views running Israel.”
But Bennett saves his fiercest criticism for the theory being advanced in Haaretz and other media outlets that his secret goal is to join not only Netanyahu’s government but also his Likud Party as the prime minister’s heir apparent.
“That is utter nonsense,” he says. “Yamina is the new generation of the national camp. We are what the Likud should have been. Compare the competence of Ayelet Shaked to Miri Regev. It’s a whole different ball game.”
Bennett can speak for hours about Netanyahu’s failures in fighting the coronavirus. He even wrote a book about what should have been done.
“We have a crisis of incompetence that we have never seen in Israel’s history,” he says. “There is no word for incompetence in Hebrew. This crisis provides an opportunity for huge change. People have been getting third-world services for 53% taxes. If that continues, people won’t stay here. That change is what I intend to do as prime minister.”
Bennett wants to model Israel after Singapore, which slashed taxes, made its government more efficient, improved its services and doubled salaries. He has plans for “fixing” Ben-Gurion Airport and the Finance, Education and Health ministries.
“I would manage things like I did as defense minister in the first wave of the coronavirus, with creativity, rapid decision-making, and serious work,” he says. “This could have been Israel’s greatest moment. We could have been the model to the world; we could have been the exporter to the world of technology and procedures.”
Bennett takes credit for initiating the field of protecting grandparents from the virus, saying: “We were the first to realize age matters.”
He organized the first coronavirus hotels, brought in the IDF to help the ailing city of Bnei Brak, sought help from hi-tech companies, and then – as he puts it – “Bibi threw us out” and formed a government without him.
“I asked to be health minister,” Bennett recalls. “Many believe Netanyahu declined because he thought I’d succeed. God forbid [that] a minister [should] succeed. Many Israelis paid a huge price for the Netanyahu governments’ failed leadership. Some 3,000 people died because of it, over a million Israelis are unemployed, and plenty have long-term trauma and fear. Israel didn’t deal the worst with COVID, but we are far from the best. The Start-Up Nation didn’t have to be mediocre.”
Bennett warns against Netanyahu’s plan of relying on vaccinations, because a third of the population cannot be vaccinated, and a variant can come any day and the entire national strategy would collapse.
“I submitted a zero-corona approach,” he says. “We could implement it quickly, but it requires competence this government lacks. We provide concrete plans that no one does. A hi-tech nation deserves a hi-tech government.”
Bennett says serving as defense minister gave him a different vantage point for dealing with both the coronavirus and threats to security. He hints that he is not afraid to use force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear capability.
“The past decade has been very problematic for the military buildup on our borders,” he says. “Hezbollah grew to having hundreds of thousands of missiles, Hamas has a mini-empire, and Iran is growing stronger.
“It is most important to stop the nuclearization of Iran. Menachem Begin did it in 1981 in Iraq, Olmert did it in 2007 in Syria. We need a multidimensional effort of military, diplomacy and cyber. This will be a top priority as prime minister.”
Bennett is careful not to criticize the Biden administration, though he worked closely as defense minister with his Trump administration counterpart, Mark Esper.
“We have to build an independent capability to stop Iran, while working very closely with America,” he says. “My background of many years in business in the United States will allow a great relationship with America, which needs to be bipartisan. Israel has become partisan, and that is not the place to be.”
Bennett’s goals also include healing what he calls “the chasm between some of American Jewry and Israelis.
“I understand the younger generation in Israel tends to be more conservative and the younger generation in the US tends to be more liberal, but that doesn’t mean we need to be separated,” he said. “It means we need to talk more.”
But as for the legal system in Israel, Bennett wants that to become more conservative. He noted that six of the 15 Supreme Court judges are due to be replaced in the next term.
“I want Ayelet Shaked to choose them, not passive, weak people like the Likud has had over the years,” he says. “The justice system has lost balance, taken authority and put brakes on the government. Unfortunately, there have been no reforms during the Likud governments.
Bennett vowed to make the system for selecting judges more transparent and to ensure that judges will be chosen who are more conservative and nationalist oriented. He wants legal advisers in ministries to return to advising rather than ordering.
But to do all that, Bennett would need to form the next government. Even if he remains the kingmaker, it will be hard for him to coronate himself.
Nevertheless, he shows no signs of being worried about whether his secret plans will work.
“I want to make the citizens the king,” he says. “That is my real goal.”