Destroying himself and his party with his own hands

That’s what many pundits are saying of Naftali Bennett. But the man it’s really true of is Netanyahu.

Bayit Yehudi Bennett & Netanyahu ad 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Bayit Yehudi)
Bayit Yehudi Bennett & Netanyahu ad 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Bayit Yehudi)
The pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom and the anti-Netanyahu Haaretz have finally found something to agree on: Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett is destroying himself and his party by refusing to crawl into Binyamin Netanyahu’s government on any terms. Doesn’t he understand, the papers’ pundits ask, that his voters’ only interests are the settlements and religious Zionist institutions, interests whose furtherance requires being in the coalition?
Many Likud politicians echo this view. How, they demand, can Bayit Yehudi be the one to “prevent the formation of a Likud government?”
Netanyahu is doubtless reading it all and rubbing his hands with glee. It’s too bad nobody in his party seems willing to tell him the truth: The party and political career he is really destroying are his own.
That was glaringly evident from a shocking poll published on Friday, exactly one month after the election. It shows that were new elections held today, Likud-Beyteinu would be trounced: It would win just 22 seats, down from 31 today, while Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid would rise from 19 to 30. Bayit Yehudi would also post a 25% gain, from 12 seats to 15.
Equally damning were respondents’ replies when asked to name Netanyahu’s main consideration in forming a coalition. Only 24% said “the good of the country,” while 59% said “personal issues.” The rest were simply baffled (“no idea”).
But to anyone who knows anything about Likud voters, the poll merely confirmed the obvious. This article focuses on my own community – educated religious Zionist professionals on the cusp between Likud and Bayit Yehudi. But the same desire for a broader domestic agenda drives voters on the cusp between Likud and Yesh Atid.   
We’re a group that reliably voted Likud for years. Some are Likud members, but we belong to Netanyahu’s camp, not Moshe Feiglin’s. Many of us once experimented with Bayit Yehudi’s predecessor, the National Religious Party, and all who did (I’ve yet to meet an exception) had the same reaction: Never again! We were appalled to discover we had backed a party interested only in narrow sectoral concerns rather than the good of the country as a whole. Likud, for all its faults, occasionally tried to address broader issues, and that’s what we wanted.
This year, however, we were torn. We were attracted by Bennett’s efforts to recast religious Zionism as a movement that did care about the national welfare. He campaigned on a broad civic agenda, even declaring that protecting the settlements isn’t “the sole flag we’re flying, nor is it the primary flag.” As one friend told me, “for the first time, I felt like there’s someone who represents us.”
Ultimately, we split: Some stuck with Likud; others – about seven seats worth – went for Bennett. The math is simple: Bayit Yehudi and National Union together had seven seats last time around.  This time, half of National Union joined Bayit Yehudi; the other half ran as Otzma Leyisrael. The latter retained about two seats’ worth of votes, insufficient to pass the electoral threshold (2.4 seats). Bayit Yehudi retained the other five. Its remaining seven seats came from Likud Yisrael Beiteinu, which lost 11 (including some to Yesh Atid).
In short, voters who care only about the settlements or religious Zionist institutions are a minority of Bennett’s voters. The majority are ex-Likudniks – who certainly share these concerns, but also care about a broader civic agenda. That’s why everyone I know who voted Bennett is happy today. They agree completely with his speech to Bayit Yehudi’s convention last Wednesday: “The only question is what this government's path will be: buying political time, or truly coping with fundamental problems? If the new government is interested in tackling the nation of Israel's real problems, we're in. But if the goal is to buy more time, we won't be.”
Those of us who voted Likud, by contrast, are miserable.
We made excuses for Netanyahu’s failure to enact domestic reforms last term. We understood that he had no government without the haredim, given then-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni’s unacceptable conditions
for a unity government, and we saw how the Haredim – whom we had hitherto truly considered our “natural partners” – repeatedly quashed proposals for domestic change.
But this time, no excuse exists: Together with Lapid and Bennett, he could form a stable government focused on domestic reform. Instead, he’s made it clear he prefers another do-nothing government dependent on the haredim – a government incapable of addressing any of Israel’s pressing domestic problems.
How will he slash spending to reduce a NIS 39 billion budget deficit when the haredim won’t let him touch the government handouts on which they depend? How will he create affordable middle-class housing when the haredim will once again insist on drafting criteria that mainly benefit haredi families? How will he reform the Chief Rabbinate and solve the conversion crisis – some 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants who are part of Jewish society, but can’t convert due to the rabbinate’s ultra-stringent approach, thus creating a looming intermarriage crisis – when the haredim control all the relevant ministries and appointment committees? How will he bring more haredim into the army and workforce if the haredi parties can veto any such move? And the list goes on.
Then, to top it off, he trashed his foreign-policy principles as well, granting the serially incompetent Livni what he correctly refused her last time: complete authority over talks with the Palestinians, the most sensitive issue in the government’s diplomatic portfolio. Anything to avoid a Lapid-Bennett government.
Bennett and Lapid have everything to gain by holding firm: Either Netanyahu will capitulate (since he still has no viable government without them), or they’ll reap the spoils from Likud’s inevitable collapse. And caving would sign their own death warrants: Voters wouldn’t forgive either of them for enabling yet another do-nothing government.
But neither will voters forgive Netanyahu for violating all his campaign promises when he could feasibly have kept them. Thus unless he swiftly reverses course, two things will be as certain as death and taxes: his party’s collapse at the polls, and his own defeat to any semi-credible challenger in the next Likud leadership primary.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.