Drive to oust Netanyahu moved back center as Bennett forgoes annexation

If Bennett won’t stand on principle for West Bank annexation, who will?

Gideon Sa'ar, Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett: Potential candidates for prime minister in 2021. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90 AND MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Gideon Sa'ar, Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett: Potential candidates for prime minister in 2021.
In his drive to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it turns out that Yamina Party chairman Naftali Bennett is willing to forgo one of the central philosophical pillars of his party – West Bank annexation.
It is a startling statement for the self-proclaimed “father” of annexation to make in an election race, which until Friday was branded as the battle for the Israeli Right.
In so doing, Bennett underscored the point that the coming election was about political personalities and not about ideology. Voters will be pressed to ask themselves a primary question: Do they or don’t they want Netanyahu?
After that, Bennett took an election that was supposed to be solely about a battle for the soul of the Israeli Right and threw himself into the stomping ground where most of the votes are – in the center.
To be clear, just as the country was going to elections at the end of December 2018, Bennett called on voters to favor his party because it alone reliably supported annexation.
“One of the key core elements of our platform is to apply Israeli sovereignty to Israel [Area C of the West Bank],” Bennett told reporters.
Sovereignty, he explained, was one of the defining policy differences between the Likud and the party that truly represented the Right, his own.
What a difference two years have made.
In a Channel 12 interview aired on Friday night, when the secular audience was watching and the religious one was celebrating Shabbat, an animated Bennett stated: “I, ‘the father of sovereignty,’ will put it aside. Right, Left, this will happen.”
Bennett did not mean to imply that he no longer supported annexation, but rather that he had put this axiom aside temporarily in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis.
“When a person is starving and goes into debt of NIS 430,000, ideology is meaningless to him,” he said.
But one has to ask if Bennett won’t stand on principle for West Bank annexation, who will?
Bennett is not just an ancillary politician when it comes to this topic. True, he did not invent the idea of West Bank sovereignty, nor was he the first politician to speak about it. But he was the most high-level politician to take it from the very fringe of the far Right and make it part of acceptable, if not standard, Israeli political discourse.
Already in 2013, as education minister, Bennett spoke publicly of the need to apply sovereignty over all of the West Bank’s Area C. It was a stance that until then had seemed almost like one of the third rails of Israeli politics; one couldn’t speak of it and expect to lead the country.
Once Bennett started, support for annexation became the litmus test of the political Right – so much so that it was a critical element in all three of the last elections.
This time around, three of the top four candidates to come in first and second in polls – Netanyahu, Bennett and New Hope Party head Gideon Sa’ar – have all pledged support for the annexation of West Bank settlements. Centrist politician Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid Party, is also a candidate for the second slot. Only the first two vote-getters have a possibility of forming a government.
But when it comes to the most central issue on the Right’s agenda, annexation, voters will have to rely solely on pledges, with no way to know whether Netanyahu, Sa’ar and Bennett will truly apply sovereignty.
Sa’ar has been a strong advocate for annexation, but that was as member of Knesset, not as a party head and certainly not as prime minister. One need only recall that former prime minister Ariel Sharon promised to protect the Gaza settlements on the campaign trail and then evacuated them after the election. He famously stated: “What you see from here [in the prime minister’s seat] is not what you see from there.”
Netanyahu was the last among the Likud and Yamina politicians to speak of annexation, referencing it only at the end of the first election cycle. In the second election and again in the third, he promised to annex the settlements as soon as a government was formed. Then once it was formed in May, he said he would do so in July. Then in August, he announced he had suspended that pledge in exchange for normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Netanyahu could repeat that same pledge again, but it would be difficult to explain why voters should believe him. This is particularly true given that in so doing he would undermine one of his most significant diplomatic achievements.
In addition, US President-elect Joe Biden is opposed to Israeli annexation of the West Bank, so any steps in that direction would increase tensions between Israel and Washington at a time when they are already likely to be at odds over Iran.
 Until Friday, Bennett was presumed to be the kind of politician who was so ideologically directed that US objections would be irrelevant to him. When he first entered the opposition in May, it was presumed that he would hammer Netanyahu mercilessly on the issue of failed annexation. Members of his party did indeed do so, but Bennett made one statement and then surprisingly backtracked, almost as though he’d had his own Ariel Sharon epiphany moment.
Since then he has focused almost exclusively on national issues that have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about which his views are extremely well known, particularly given that he was once the Yesha Council’s director-general.
Instead, he has spoken of COVID-19 and the economy, arguing that he is best suited to shepherd Israel out of the crisis.
So it is that three of the top four prime ministerial contenders are on the Right, where more than 10 mandates are likely in contention. But they cannot do more than make pledges of annexation to sway voters.
In many ways, Netanyahu is the most centrist of the three, and most of what he can promise on issues important to the Right, Bennett and Sa’ar could also offer. So it is in the center, where there are at least nine if not eventually 15 mandates up for grabs, that the dialogue in this election to oust Netanyahu is more likely to focus, because here there is more room to make a distinguishing mark.
So much so that even Bennett, the most far Right among them, knows that he must appear willing to compromise and to continue the rebranding toward the center that began already last spring.
In this national election, the health crisis is more acute than the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and therefore ideology is out.
The politician who remains or becomes prime minister must be able to sway the Center-Left, the Center and the Right to vote for him.
Annexation might be popular on the Right, but in this election, it is unlikely to be the stepping stone to victory.