Naftali Bennett is the kingmaker – can he be king? - analysis

Bennett seems more likely to demand to be defense minister, the position he wanted for years and briefly held in 2020.

YAMINA leader Naftali Bennett at the Defense Ministry last year. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
YAMINA leader Naftali Bennett at the Defense Ministry last year.
Recent polls consistently put Yamina and its leader, Naftali Bennett, into the position of kingmaker.
Unlike in the previous two elections in this four-election saga, the anyone-but-Bibi bloc doesn’t necessarily need the Joint List to come out on top, which intensely complicated things for them.
In most scenarios, if Yamina recommends Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, he’ll have enough Knesset seats behind him to stay in office. But if Bennett recommends whomever is leading the not-Bibi bloc – Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid in recent polls – then the premiership will likely go to that person.
In various media interviews, Yamina MKs have not committed to recommending anyone for prime minister, saying Bennett is their candidate. This is a marked difference from what Bennett and his political partner MK Ayelet Shaked said in the past five elections, since 2013, which was that Bennett would be the best candidate for prime minister after Netanyahu leaves office.
Those facts taken together raise the question on whether Bennett, who came in fourth in polls this week, can parlay his kingmaker position to become king himself – prime minister, that is.
The last government was based on a rotation agreement, in which Netanyahu would become prime minister for a year and a half and Defense Minister Benny Gantz would pick up after that, in November 2021. It came together through the legislation of a series of complicated rules meant to ensure that the rotation really happens.
We all know how that turned out. It’s now February 2021, we’re six weeks away from the fourth election in two years, and no one is calling Gantz “alternate prime minister” anymore.
Bennett knows it too, which is why a source close to the Yamina leader said Bennett would only agree to a rotation for the premiership if he was first.
And, as the source said, why would anyone agree to that?
Yes, Bennett is potentially the kingmaker, but there’s a huge margin between Yamina and Likud, and a significant one between Yamina and Yesh Atid. Plus, the current rotation ended up being such a farce that another one would likely be very unpopular and maybe even politically toxic, on top of all the other impracticalities of such inconsistency at the top of government.
Bennett seems more likely to demand the defense ministry, the position he wanted for years and briefly held in 2020.
So much of this is unpredictable, since we don’t know what the results of the election will be in the days following March 23.
The more pressing issue for Bennett, at this point, is how not to repeat the problem he has had in the past five elections, whereby he polls well but comes out of the real election with fewer seats. The worst was in the first election of 2019, when his New Right party failed altogether to pass the electoral threshold, but this problem has gone as far back as his first run for Knesset, in 2013, when polls predicted 16-17 seats for Bayit Yehudi, and he ended up with 12. His parties have never done as well since.
The blame has generally gone to a phenomenon often described as “shooting inside the armored personnel carrier” – when Likud cannibalizes the Right to grow itself at Bennett’s expense – through “the gevald campaign” – when Netanyahu says if Likud isn’t the biggest party the Right will not win, again at Bennett’s expense. The result is that Netanyahu “drinks up votes with a straw,” all terms that have become cliches of right-wing politics in the past decade.
Yamina is confident this time that Netanyahu won’t be able to siphon off their votes at the last minute, because this is the first time Bennett is not running with a promise to recommend Netanyahu as prime minister. This means that unlike in the past, current Yamina voters are more likely to stay the course, while those who are sure they want Netanyahu will be less likely to start off with Yamina and then leave when they’re worried about how Likud will do.
In fact, Yamina’s analysis has found that they are attracting large numbers of voters who do not want Netanyahu to be prime minister.
The other reason for hope in Yamina, as far as voter retention is concerned, is that Bennett is singularly focused on coronavirus and his alternatives to the way the government is handling the pandemic and related economic issues.
Because of Bennett consistently positioning himself as a critic of Netanyahu, it will be harder for Netanyahu to convince people who don’t like the government’s COVID-19 response to leave Bennett for him.
If Bennett wants to keep his kingmaker position, coronavirus will have to continue to dominate the agenda. Luckily for Yamina, nearly every party is talking about pandemic economics. If the conversation shifts in a serious way to Iran or the Palestinians, Bennett might experience a familiar sinking sensation in his polling numbers.