Naftali Bennett: The kingmaker who will not be king - opinion

Bennett could stay kingmaker as long as Netanyahu’s only chance to form the next government rests on him joining the coalition.

MK NAFTALI BENNETT in the Knesset – he spoiled it all.  (photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)
MK NAFTALI BENNETT in the Knesset – he spoiled it all.
(photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)
Last week Yamina leader Naftali Bennett lost quite a few points in my eyes. For the past few months he has argued convincingly that there must be a change of regime and that it is time for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to go home because of his placing his own personal interests before those of the state and his ruinous health and economic policies. 
It is also no secret that Bennett has had a bellyful of Netanyahu for the way he has treated him politically over the years and the ugly, baseless slights against his father and wife. Yet all along he has refused to declare that under no circumstances will he sit in a government led by Netanyahu, or speak of the circumstances under which he might do so. His consistent explanation has been that he refuses to boycott anyone as his two right-wing rivals from the just-not-Bibi camp (Gideon Sa’ar and Avigdor Liberman) are doing.
It is quite clear why he has done so as a campaign tactic: to decrease Netanyahu’s chances of “drinking his potential voters with a straw” just before Election Day, as he did in the past three elections. At the moment Netanyahu can argue that voting for either Sa’ar or Liberman means wasting right-wing votes for a leftist government led by Ya’ir Lapid (since Yesh Atid is consistently predicted to be the second largest party in the elections to the 24th Knesset). As long as Bennett leaves open the option of joining a Netanyahu-led government, Netanyahu cannot do the same in his case, and thus Bennett maintains his unique position as kingmaker.
What leaves Bennett in the status of kingmaker is the fact that as long as Netanyahu’s only chance to form the next government rests on the possibility that Bennett will join the coalition he hopes to establish – a pure right-wing government, without all “the diseases” of his current moribund government (which is what Netanyahu said about it in his interview with Yonit Levy on Channel 12 two weeks ago). 
However, the fewer Knesset seats Yamina will receive in the approaching election, so the chances of his maintaining the kingmaker position will diminish, and the main way Bennett can distinguish himself from Sa’ar and Liberman in the eyes of right-wing voters who are displeased with Netanyahu, is the fact that he can argue that he is not part of the “just-not-Bibi” camp, while appearing to leave all his options open by adding that he does not boycott anyone.
But then in one moment he went “and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like” “I won’t sit in a government under Lapid.” It should be noted that he did not say that he will not sit with Lapid – only that he will not sit under him. 
Immediately after he said it, Sa’ar made a similar declaration – the difference between the two being that Bennett broke his own word about not boycotting anyone, while Sa’ar has said all along that “if you want Bibi, don’t vote for me.” 
In Bennett’s case this is a breach of his word, and in an interview on “Ofira and Berkovich” on Channel 12, he added insult to injury by stating that he plans to be in a national government, which will include Sa’ar, Liberman and Lapid, but that he will not enable the Left to rule, and deliberately did not mention the Labor Party (which will certainly pass the qualifying threshold), or Meretz (which is on the borderline), both of which are the only “Left” that remains on the Israeli political map (Lapid is Center). Whether he likes it or not, he must realize that Sa’ar, Lapid, Liberman and himself, cannot possibly form an alternative government without Labor and Meretz. 
Since neither Bennett nor Sa’ar will agree to sit in a government led by Lapid, since Liberman in unlikely to gain more than seven or eight Knesset seats, and since Bennett refuses to disassociate himself completely from Netanyahu or fathom a government that includes left-wing elements, at the moment it seems that only Sa’ar is capable of heading a government without Netanyahu.
Of course, it is not to be excluded that if Netanyahu is unable to form a sixth government, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox might be willing to consider joining an alternative government, despite their agreeing last week to sign a watered-down declaration of allegiance to the Likud – though not to Netanyahu personally. 
However, this could be complicated, since both Liberman and Lapid will resist it. In addition, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties themselves are going to have to wean themselves from Netanyahu (if he loses), and go through a difficult period of introspection, resulting from their growing estrangement from the general Israeli society during the COVID-19 era, which is not going to be an easy process, certainly not from within a rather heterogeneous government.
IN FACT, besides Bennett, there is another political leader who has lost many points in my eyes in recent weeks. It is Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni, a man for whom I have a lot of respect as one of the more effective MKs in the Knesset since 1988, and who, for better or worse, has certainly left a mark on the parliamentary history of Israel – in most of the of the time since 2009 as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee.
It is very rare that Gafni manages to get me angry, but in recent weeks he has managed to do so on several occasions. The first occasion was when he appeared on television and accused the authorities of being responsible for the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods “because they stuck us in small and crowded apartments.” True, many, perhaps most, ultra-Orthodox homes and neighborhoods are over-crowded, but it is certainly not the authorities who are to blame.
It is the ultra-Orthodox themselves who for religious reasons, and by instruction of their spiritual leaders live by rules that dictate having large families without taking into account whether the parents can support them, offer them appropriate living conditions and an economic perspective. 
On the contrary – most ultra-Orthodox families choose to live in poverty, since the husband studies in a kollel and the breadwinner of the family is the wife, who is also the mother of many children and the housekeeper. It is also by choice that these families do not own TV sets and computers, all of which make going through the COVID-19 era, with the children stuck at home with little to keep them busy, especially difficult, and the rate of corona infection in the homes is accordingly especially high. 
The alternative, which is to send the children to their schools even when this is forbidden by law, is also problematic, not just because it is illegal, but because the schools are also hotbeds of infection.
In his recent TV interviews Gafni has refused to speak of the dilemmas that the ultra-Orthodox face, or of the introspection that the ultra-Orthodox must undergo. On one occasion he abruptly ended an interview with Channel 12 reporter Yair Sheriki after insisting that all he is willing to talk about is his activity in the Finance Committee, and the need for ultra-Orthodox-secular cooperation in getting all the children back to school. If Gafni takes such a position, what can one expect from the rest of his parliamentary group?
The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement and recently published a book in Hebrew, “The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job,” soon to appear in English.