Bennett’s gambit: Could his candidacy unblock Israel’s political system?

If Naftali Bennett is serious about expanding his party’s outreach as he stated to a Politico interviewer, he has to convince his party that he is serious about being prime minister.

Naftali Bennet  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Naftali Bennet
In the recently concluded coalition crisis that had Israel on the verge of snap elections, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett dropped his usual refrain that he would vie for the prime ministership only after Benjamin Netanyahu had departed the political scene. During the crisis Bennett warned that if Netanyahu insisted on forcing unnecessary and wasteful elections on Israel, he, Bennett, would compete against him.
It would be a pity if Bennett, now that the crisis has been averted, slunk back to his waiting-in-line approach. First of all the strategy is useless; Bennett cannot fly under the radar. Likud rivals such as Culture Minister Miri Regev berate Bennett for even presuming to aspire to Netanyahu’s post as if this was lèse-majesté rather than normal competitive politics in a democracy. Whatever he does now, Bennett has been marked as a usurper in waiting.
The downside to a direct challenge is minimal. Bennett should not consider Netanyahu’s possible payback as a factor. What counts for Netanyahu is whether he needs you or not. In the last elections the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party was the most loyal to Netanyahu as opposed to the shots that Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party took against Netanyahu in the campaign. Avigdor Liberman, after the 2009 elections, kept Netanyahu waiting while he explored a national unity government with equal billing to Tzipi Livni. After the 2015 elections, he originally stayed out of the government. The dénouement was that Kahlon has the treasury and Liberman the defense ministry.
In contrast, Netanyahu promised Jewish Home voters in the last elections that their party would be the senior coalition member whatever its size and therefore they could safely vote Likud. This worked to the tune of four to five seats that switched hands from Jewish Home to Likud. Netanyahu did keep his promise that his first call following an electoral victory would be to Bayit Yehudi. But after that first call, Netanyahu hung Bennett out to dry and dealt with everybody else. He of course did not give Bennett the promised defense portfolio. It was only then that Naftali Bennett grasped that Netanyahu was the Leo Durocher of Israeli politics, who similarly believed that nice guys finish last. Bennett hung tough at the end of the negotiations when without his support Netanyahu had no coalition and was rewarded with the education ministry for himself and the justice ministry for Ayelet Shaked.
So tactically tossing your hat in the ring against Netanyahu is not political suicide and confers benefits. A Bennett candidacy can unblock Israel’s political system. The system is uncompetitive because the public has not forgiven the center-left for bringing us Oslo and then clinging to its failed legacy. As long as the Left refuses to part unambiguously with this legacy, it will find it nearly impossible to come to power. Attempts by former party chair Sheli Yachimovich and current chair Avi Gabbay to deemphasize Olso have brought major pushbacks from the left and attempts to reinstate Oslo. It is understandable that when a party announces that its signature policy has failed, it is in for early rough sailing in the polls, but it is necessary to soldier through and thus convince the public that the change is genuine.
Therefore, to break the logjam the opponent to Netanyahu must emerge from the nationalist ranks. The Likud will not supply an alternative to Netanyahu until he has gone for two reasons. Likud sticks with an incumbent prime minister until he is done either by retirement or electoral defeat. Secondly, Netanyahu has refused to groom a successor and has withheld Treasury, Defense and Foreign ministries from any Likud politician with a power base in the party. The only exception was former chief-of-staff Moshe Yaalon who proved the rule. He lacked a base within Likud and since bolting the party has gone absolutely nowhere politically.
If Naftali Bennett is serious about expanding his party’s outreach as he stated to a Politico interviewer, he has to convince his party that he is serious about being prime minister. If the party will continue its role as a Likud satellite party and a junior coalition partner, even with proven successes in the ministries it controls, Bennett will not convince the party that it can abandon the comfort of a niche party in the search for new voters.
I would like to see more competition not because I am an inveterate Netanyahu hater or because I am convinced that he is corrupt. Netanyahu has simply been in for too long and with all his talents nobody should be considered irreplaceable. When David Ben-Gurion left we got Levi Eshkol; Begin was followed by Yizhak Shamir and a case can be made that the replacement surpassed the illustrious predecessor. The nationalist part of the political spectrum does not lack talented candidates but under Netanyahu their growth has been stunted. It is time for them to compete, show their wares and shine.