Naftali Bennett's moment: Will he ditch Netanyahu and anoint Gantz as PM?

In approximately two weeks, and if nothing significant happens before then, Benny Gantz’s mandate will expire and a third election will pretty much be a fait accompli.

Naftali Bennett has a decision to make. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Naftali Bennett has a decision to make.
In approximately two weeks, and if nothing significant happens before then, Benny Gantz’s mandate will expire and a third election will pretty much be a fait accompli.
There is one man who could potentially change all that, and surprisingly, it is Naftali Bennett: for the next 12 days the former education minister holds the keys to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future. With a single decision he can decide whether Gantz forms a government and Netanyahu leaves the Prime Minister’s Office.
It is an interesting position to be in for someone who just a few months ago – after the April election when his New Right experiment failed – seemed like a political has-been. After Bennett and fellow party member Ayelet Shaked failed to enter the Knesset, both were contemplating their next steps. Bennett was considering going back to business while at the same time taking up a role within the Jewish world. Shaked was rumored to be a candidate to run a cannabis company.
In recent weeks Bennett has warned that if there is a new election, the right-wing camp could potentially be wiped out. His argument has truth to it. If in April the Right gained 60 seats without Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, after the September vote it was only 55. In addition, the Arab Joint List has been gaining strength and is expected to continue to climb in another election, possibly getting 15-16 seats.
Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc is currently 55 seats with the Likud, the ultra-Orthodox and Yamina. On the other side, Gantz has 52 with Blue and White, Liberman, Democratic Union and Labor.
Now imagine the following move by Bennett: he, Shaked and the third member of New Right, Matan Kahana, join Gantz. His bloc then climbs to 55 and Netanyahu’s drops to 52. If that were to happen, Gantz would be able to approve his coalition in a Knesset vote (all you need is a regular majority) without needing to rely on the Arab Knesset members. That would deny Netanyahu’s claim – and a public perception – that Blue and White is a far-left party in cahoots with the Arabs.
It is seemingly for this reason that Netanyahu offered Bennett a ministerial portfolio this week. Netanyahu wants to keep Bennett close, and the best way to do that is to get him sitting around the cabinet table once again. Bennett turned down the offer, but at the same time also announced that he would not be joining Gantz. Instead, he has publicly pushed for a national unity government between Likud and Blue and White.
A DEMONSTRATION of the new Netanyahu-Bennett alliance played out in the Knesset on Monday. Almost all of the party leaders came to a room off the side of the plenum to commemorate the sixth anniversary since the passing of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. When it was his turn to speak, Bennett urged Netanyahu and Gantz – both sitting in front of him – to negotiate a deal and form a government.
Netanyahu looked at Gantz and said, “Did you hear that?” leading some to speculate that the prime minister and Bennett had coordinated the exchange.
Bennett, though, is not a political novice, and has had enough ups and downs with Netanyahu to last a lifetime. He knows that Netanyahu is only cozying up to him now because he needs him close. The moment Gantz’s 28 days are up and a government still has not been formed, Netanyahu can go back to sidelining Bennett.
What are the chances Bennett joins Gantz? Hard to tell. On the one hand, joining Gantz now would give him a top ministry and a seat around the security cabinet table. But what would the day after look like? Returning to a prominent role in the right-wing camp would be difficult, especially after the attacks Likud and Netanyahu launch against him. The mudslinging he experienced until now is nothing compared to what could come afterward.
On the other hand, if Bennett doesn’t join Gantz and Israel goes to a third election, what party would he run in? Would he and Shaked once again merge with the far-right parts of the Jewish Home and the likes of Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich? They could, but that party didn’t fare as well in September as it had originally hoped. With the Right’s electoral strength in decline, a list like that could be at risk of not crossing the electoral threshold.
This is not a simple position to be in, and while Bennett has said unequivocally that he won’t join Gantz, he might want to  reconsider. When it comes to policy, there is no real difference between Likud and Blue and White. Their positions on the economy are the same, their positions on the Palestinians are the same, and their stance on Iran’s nuclear program is the same.
If a Bennett-Gantz partnership succeeds in avoiding a third election, it should not be immediately ruled out. Israel needs a functioning government that can properly deal with the challenges it is currently facing, from Iran in the northeast to Gaza in the South to the overcrowded emergency rooms in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheba.
Bennett has just under two weeks to decide.
WHEN AMIR Ohana was appointed justice minister in June, it was viewed as a sign of Israeli progressiveness because the appointment was made by a prime minister from a traditionally conservative party. Ohana is openly gay and made history as Israel’s first gay minister.
In the months that have passed, though, we can now conclude that Ohana’s appointment was anything but progressive. It was a step backward. Just days after taking office, he said that not all court decisions need to be followed. Last week he launched an assault against the State Prosecutor’s Office, accusing it of conspiring against public officials for political purposes.
“The State Attorney’s Office inside the State Attorney’s Office, a small cult supported by reporters in the field, have terminated many careers of public officials,” Ohana said. “The inner State Attorney’s Office establishes its timetable in accordance with the political timetable, the elections and coalition negotiations, and leaks investigative material, therefore turning itself into a player on the political stage.”
The attack was unprecedented. The justice minister is meant to protect the integrity and independence of the prosecutors and attorneys who uphold the rule of law in Israel. Ohana is working to undo that.
And then the kicker came on Wednesday, when he took to the Knesset podium and blatantly violated a court gag order, revealing the tactic police used to pressure former Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz to turn state’s witness in Case 4000. Whether you agree with the tactic or not – it involved bringing someone not connected to the case into Hefetz’s interrogation room – the justice minister should not be allowed to simply violate court orders.
Ohana was able to do so and get away with it since, as a member of Knesset, he has immunity.
After four months in the role, Ohana has shown that he is not deserving of the title justice minister. He has turned his role of upholding the independence of Israel’s judicial system into a minister who cares about one issue: how to help Netanyahu, his political patron, undermine the system.
The silver lining is that Ohana’s chances of keeping the job after a government is formed are slim. The Justice Ministry is a senior portfolio and will be given to one of the senior members of a future coalition.
The problem is that a coalition does not currently appear on the horizon, and if Israel goes to a new election Ohana will remain in place for months to come.
That alone is a good enough reason to end this stalemate.