It’s too soon to call time on Bennett’s tenure - analysis

Netanyahu predicted that Bennett's coalition was on its last legs, but on television screens across Israel, polls showed that his celebratory tone was premature.

THANK PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett for modeling how to cross traditional and modern wires constructively, demolishing binary stereotypes. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THANK PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett for modeling how to cross traditional and modern wires constructively, demolishing binary stereotypes.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government was wobbling at the end of this week, but despite suffering a severe crisis, it did not fall.

If anything, it appeared by Thursday night to be on the rebound from the impact of MK Idit Silman’s decision on Wednesday to resign from the coalition.

The move robbed Bennett’s government of its slim majority of 61 seats and dropped it to 60, just enough to stymie Knesset votes but not enough to give the opposition the power to disperse the Knesset and call for a new election.

However, it did not lead to a sudden wild exit of Yamina Party members in the first 24 hours.

Even MK Nir Orbach’s ultimatum, in which he threatened to follow in Silman’s footsteps and resign unless Bennett met his three demands, looked by evening as if he had offered the coalition a life vest rather than deal it a death blow: Orbach’s office published a photograph showing him shaking hands with Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who heads the Yisrael Beytenu Party.

MK Nir Orbach attends a Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on September 25, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)MK Nir Orbach attends a Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on September 25, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

It was a photo that underscored that Liberman, who angered Orbach by canceling daycare funding for children of yeshiva students, was willing to compromise and had now agreed to delay that by to years to keep the coalition afloat.

Liberman followed that with a public speech in which he stated that “it is too early to talk about an election.”

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, of Bennett’s right-wing Yamina Party, made a public appearance with him in the town of Harish, and Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana spoke out in support of the coalition.

As the political fire suddenly appeared to flicker rather than engulf the coalition, the sudden absence of smoke showed a political reality that had been there from the start: Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid never had a stable coalition.

They cobbled together a narrow political majority of former opponents after a protracted two-and-a-half-year period in which Israel went through four elections while producing a seven-month government.

The coalition includes an Arab-Israeli party, left-wingers and right-wingers, secular and religious politicians, and those who support settlements and those who oppose them.

They are bound by little save for a belief in democracy, and antipathy toward both additional elections and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the Likud party. They remain sharply divided on issues from the religious-secular divide to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Silman quit over a decision to allow bread into Israeli hospitals during Passover when such food is religiously forbidden, and in the aftermath of a dispute over daycare payments for children of yeshiva students.

Her move followed a steep political battle waged by the Right and the settlement movement over a de facto freeze in the advancement of plans for new settlement homes, and a refusal by the government to hook up West Bank settler outposts to the electricity grid.

Bennett’s decision to give a nod to the Americans and for the first time in his public life speak of the “West Bank” rather than “Judea and Samaria” stoked fears on the Right that this government was a fig leaf for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

Politicians in Bennett’s Yamina Party and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party have been under pressure to abandon the government and help create a new right-wing coalition to replace the one run by Bennett.

For a moment on Wednesday it seemed as if they were on the verge of success.

Netanyahu sounded like he was inaugurating his election campaign on Wednesday night, when he stood at a right-wing rally in Jerusalem and spoke of waking up to a “new dawn.”

He predicted that Bennett’s coalition was on its last legs, but polls published by three television stations showed that his celebratory tone was premature.

All three polls showed that if an election were held today, Netanyahu remains, hands-down, the most popular politician in the field, and would garner 35 to 38 mandates – five to eight more than he received in the last election when the Likud Party netted 30 seats.

The polls also showed that a potential right-wing bloc of Likud, the Religious Zionist Party, Shas and United Torah Judaism had gained steam, rising from 52 in the last election to 58.

But there it stopped, three tantalizing seats short. Events of this week showed that while it might be easier than previously imagined to bring down Bennett’s government, it still might be impossible to form any other government than the one that exists now.

Any Israeli Prime Minister would also have to contend with pressure from the Biden Administration not to advance settlement activity.

Given that US President Joe Biden is in the White House, new elections are risky from the perspective of a right-wing agenda, because Lapid would become prime minister during such an election period based on the coalition agreement. He could still take steps to act against the settlements or the religious authority of the state as prime minister, and there is no telling how long such an election period might last.

All three polls showed something else as well: Bennett and the Yamina Party were not without support. Polls showed that in the next election, his party would receive anywhere from five to seven mandates. In short, the politicians in his party could still have a future.

The gamble of going to an election could be just as risky as the gamble of staying in the coalition. Bennett also upped the stakes on those who might want to leave, subtly threatening to declare that they have left the party, thus making them ineligible politically to join any of the existing parties in the next election.

Nor would it be simple to replace Bennett without an election, with a Netanyahu-led coalition, as such a move would need nine politicians, a move made possible only if many of the politicians in Yamina and, or New Hope defected with the permission of their parties or if Defense Minister Benny Gantz would join forces with the Likud.

But it was precisely that scenario of a Netanyahu-Gantz government that already failed after seven months last year, so Gantz is unlikely to make that same choice twice. The speculation is that such a deal could only happen if Netanyahu were to offer Gantz the premiership first on a rotating basis.

In the interim, Gantz has shown that he is a center-right rather than a right-wing politician. He has met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and settlers have blamed him for the freeze.

Strangely, right-wing politicians in Yamina and New Hope might have more power to advance their agendas in a Bennett-Lapid government than in a Gantz-Netanyahu one.

Make no mistake, the political crisis caused by Silman’s decision is a serious one, but it is also not an inevitable sign of Bennett’s downfall.

Bennett, remember, was already sent home once by the voters, then returned and managed to cobble together an almost impossible political scenario in which he became prime minister with only a seven-member party.

He has managed to maintain a balance among his competing coalition partners. The Left has no reason to leave, because no other scenario places them in a government, so the place Bennett has fallen short is when it comes to nurturing his own party.

Those rushing to eulogize Bennett should remember one of his predecessors, Ariel Sharon, held on to power for over a year-and-a-half after his government was reduced to a minority of 59 seats.

Events of the past 48 hours are less of a new dawn and more of a wake-up call to Bennett: before he attempts to mediate a Russian-Ukrainian ceasefire, he should find a way to broker peace with members of his own party.