How did Bennett win Israel's prime minister race after the election?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: The Yamina leader got only seven seats when Israelis voted, but he turned that into victory in the contest that really counted

Naftali Bennett overlooks polling data with his American strategist, George Birnbaum (photo credit: Courtesy)
Naftali Bennett overlooks polling data with his American strategist, George Birnbaum
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The political career of Naftali Bennett hit rock bottom just two years ago, on April 16, 2019.
His New Right Party had failed to cross the electoral threshold by some 1,400 votes, so the party had 120 volunteers working in cubicles at their headquarters in Bnei Brak trying to find irregularities in the voting that could persuade the Central Elections Committee to rule that the party had crossed the electoral threshold.
Bennett received a call from the Central Elections Committee chairman, Supreme Court judge Hanan Melcer, informing him that his appeal had been rejected and that he and his candidates would not be entering the Knesset. Candidate and close friend Matan Kahana asked Bennett what to do next.
“We have to take down our tents and end the operation,” Bennett said, using his IDF commando terminology.
Bennett thanked the volunteers but told them to stop and go home. It appeared to everyone in the room that just like Bennett’s military career was over, so was his adventure in Israeli politics.
An activist close to Bennett who was there that day said no one could have dreamed that just over two years later, he would complete the process of forming a government and succeed Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.
But through smart political tactics, Bennett managed to use his three seats two elections later to become defense minister and earn a reputation as a professional due to how he handled an unexpected battle, not against Hamas or Hezbollah but against the coronavirus. He had the good fortune that Netanyahu left him out of the outgoing government, which allowed him to build himself up as a real alternative.
The March election was almost as big a letdown as the results of the race two years earlier. He crossed the threshold but won only seven seats – far short of the 20 he hoped for when the election was initiated. With his Yamina Party receiving only 273,836 votes – some 6.21% of the ballots cast and good enough for only fifth place – Bennett was considered one of the election’s biggest losers.
BENNETT INDEED lost the election. But he won the race after the election, which is where he actually intended to compete from the start.
It was clear to Bennett and his advisers that Netanyahu and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid would receive the most mandates but that they would need him to be able to form a government. Bennett used the skills he gained in his successful hi-tech career and embarked on a path to another successful exit.
To that end, Bennett resisted plenty of advice to join the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps and formed a political bloc of his own. He was asked questions about Netanyahu in countless interviews, and in all of them he resisted pressure to give up the political neutrality that was his top strategic asset.
“I was always the one to say you have to stay independent and keep your options open,” said Bennett’s American strategist George Birnbaum, who helped Netanyahu get elected for the first time 25 years ago this week and has worked on every Israeli election since. “I fought tooth and nail to make sure Naftali wouldn’t commit to one camp or another.”
Birnbaum’s advice was to play to win. Even when he fell in the polls, Bennett kept saying he was running for prime minister.
“I told him that you always have to run to win,” Birnbaum said. “Anything can happen. The hand of God plays a role. Our polling found that people saw him as a possible prime minister. It was always about maximizing his vote and building his brand and making him credible to be prime minister in this election or the next.”
That polling found that the race between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs was going to be relatively close, which only increased Bennett’s power even after he had won only seven seats. That strategy of remaining his own bloc continued after the election, during the mandates to form a government of Netanyahu and then Lapid.
“You can’t negotiate if you show your cards,” Birnbaum said. “Staying independent allowed Naftali to negotiate from a position of power.”
Forming a government on his own with seven seats would not happen. But holding the balance of power enabled Bennett to demand to go first in a rotation as prime minister with either Netanyahu or Lapid.
Netanyahu wasted his four week mandate to form a government and offered Bennett such a rotation only in the press when his mandate was nearly over. The prime minister did not help his cause by campaigning for the Religious Zionist Party to take away votes from Yamina instead of making a strategic decision to partner with Bennett.
That is exactly what Lapid did. Lapid made a strategic decision to stay with Bennett, in an effort to oust Netanyahu, due to what he saw as the good of the country.
Lapid treated Bennett with respect from the start and never stopped, even when Bennett twice distanced himself from Lapid for tactical reasons. Lapid could have attacked Bennett the two times that Bennett appeared to rule out joining a government of change.
The first time came two days before the election in an interview with the right-wing Channel 20, when Bennett tried to call Netanyahu’s bluff about not joining a government with Ra’am (United Arab List) head Mansour Abbas. From Bennett’s standpoint, because Netanyahu did not accept his challenge, he was not bound by it either.
The second came during Operation Guardian of the Walls, when Bennett decided to alleviate the pressure on him and other Yamina candidates by temporarily stopping contacts with the change camp during the war and giving Netanyahu another chance during the week after the war.
In the weekend after he leaked that he would stop efforts to form a government with Lapid, sources close to him said he would restart talks with Lapid in the days before his mandate ended, and that is exactly what he did. Lapid leaked initially that there would be a price to pay for Bennett jumping ship during the war, but soon enough they returned to their original plan and Bennett returned to be the change bloc’s candidate for prime minister.
New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar, by contrast, chose to put himself firmly in the anti-Netanyahu camp. By doing so, he lost his negotiating power.
“Gideon’s strategy to rule out Bibi ended his hope of replacing Bibi,” a source close to Bennett said.
BIRNBAUM SAID that in all his private conversations with Bennett, he never spoke against Netanyahu. The enemy, for Bennett, was a fifth election in under two-and-a-half years. “His main driving force was not vitriol against Bibi,” Birnbaum said. “He said we need to do what is best for Israel, and what is worst for Israel is a fifth election.”
Birnbaum, who has run political campaigns in dozens of countries around the world, praised Bennett for taking a step that could harm his political future by burning his bridges with his political base on the Right.
“The definition of leadership is sacrificing his base,” Birnbaum said. “He could have played it safe by saying ‘I can’t form a coalition with these people’ and built himself up for next time. The leadership to take risk speaks volumes about him. You have to have admiration for that. That is rare in Israel and around the world – putting the country first ahead of his own future.”
Birnbaum sees the way Bennett turned around from seemingly having no political future two years ago to apparently becoming prime minister now as what really makes him the successor of Netanyahu.
“People talk about Bibi as a political magician and say never count him out,” he said. “I think Naftali has shown he’s good at the game. He is now the one who deserves credit for his political acumen.”•