"There’s only one scenario in which we don’t go to fifth elections, and that’s if Bennett has a lot of seats"
Naftali Bennett is the “comeback kid.” Knocked out of the Knesset two years ago, he returned to serve as a high-profile defense minister, and then went on to become the most effective critic of the government’s handling of corona. When that government ground to a halt and the fourth elections in two years were announced, Bennett declared himself a candidate for the top office.
But Bennett’s plans to challenge Binyamin Netanyahu for the country’s leadership were thrown into disarray by the emergence of Gideon Saar as a rival. Bennett and Saar have now spent months battling over the same pool of center-right voters.
In a candid conversation just two weeks before the polls open, Bennett outlines a new strategy. He’s no longer battling for the centrist “anyone but Bibi” camp, now dominated by Gideon Saar. Instead, he’s fighting a double battle: to win votes on the right, and to create a public perception that he’s Netanyahu’s successor for the leadership of the right.
But while he plots his takeover of the prime minister’s office, Bennett recognizes a bleak truth. A right-wing government made up of Bennett, Bezalel Smotrich, and the chareidim isn’t Netanyahu’s only option. The other option is to just entrench himself in Balfour Street and drag the country to fifth elections.
Less than a month before the elections, the polls uniformly show that Naftali Bennett will hold the balance of power. You’ve become the kingmaker, the one who will decide who becomes Israel’s next prime minister, Netanyahu or Lapid.
“I’m glad to be the kingmaker, but the king I’m going to crown is the Israeli public. For many years, young Israelis, especially, have felt that they’re constantly climbing the ladder and never making progress. They climb and climb, only to stay in the same place. This was true, first and foremost, with the economy — even before Covid, the situation was out of control. Many worked full-time jobs and couldn’t pay the bills. Many would never have a chance, no matter how hard they worked, to buy their own house. The Negev, over 12 years of Netanyahu’s rule, has been lost to the Bedouins, with widespread armed robberies and breaches of army bases. Housing prices have skyrocketed, and there’s a lot of hatred between different sectors. We need to take Israel out of the mud and charge forward.”
Even at the cost of joining Yair Lapid and the left?
“I’ll say it as clearly as possible — this can happen only from the right. I’m telling you clearly, Netanyahu can only be replaced from the right. I won’t lend a hand to a left-wing prime minister.”
Let’s call the man by his name. You won’t support Lapid for prime minister?
“I won’t enthrone Lapid as prime minister. Sadly, we’ve been through four election campaigns — and it doesn’t even have to do with corona. After 32 years in politics, Netanyahu can’t form a stable government, and that’s why the time has come to replace him, but only from the right. I’ll be clear: Yamina will not sit in a left-wing government led by Lapid as prime minister.”
You’re basing your campaign on the claim that Netanyahu has shown a failure of leadership during corona, but the crisis from the pandemic is a worldwide phenomenon, and Israel is getting along well enough…
“Getting along where? I was recently in Sderot in a factory that manufactures fuses for shells. They’ve laid off 20 employees. Because there’s no budget, the Defense Ministry can’t fund them. We’re talking about people’s lives here, their bread and butter, and we have a government that closed its ears and couldn’t care less. My drive, my goal, is to make sure my people have bread, livelihoods, and self-respect. It’s terrible, we need to snap out of it. After 32 years, we’ll say thank you, Bibi, and vote Bennett.”
You keep bringing up Netanyahu’s failures and saying that his day is over — but look at the vaccine drive. Bibi has proven that he’s still in his prime, that he’s still capable of making us a model for the world…
“The vaccine drive is wonderful. But when you’re bringing in vaccines with one hand and mutations with the other, it’s a terrific waste. Israel, by the way, isn’t the worst in the world in terms of the coronavirus, but we’re pretty mediocre. When it comes to the number of dead as a percentage of the population, we’re in the upper quartile of the world. In the number of days spent in lockdown, we’re number one. The number of days of school closed — we’re number one. It’s true that after a year of stumbles, we did get the vaccines, but everything else was a failure.”
But you’ll agree with us on this: Netanyahu is over 70, yet he’s active and energetic and works round the clock. And polls show that a majority on the right think Israel hasn’t had such a leader since Ben-Gurion. So in this election, which is essentially a primary between Bibi and Bennett on the right, many will say, “True, Naftali is right when he talks about the coronavirus, but it isn’t time to say goodbye to Bibi yet.”
“Friends, until now, I never declared myself a candidate for prime minister, because that’s exactly what my thinking was. I agreed with that, and since entering politics, I’ve recommended Netanyahu to form a government every time. Over the past year, a string of events have led me to the conclusion that something here is rotten. It started with Netanyahu deciding to throw us to the opposition — he used us and discarded us. That pained us a lot.”
So your main argument against Bibi is a personal one, that he used and discarded you?
“On the contrary, that shows lack of loyalty to the right-wing camp as a whole, which we remained loyal to. But it all goes back to the fact that earlier, as defense minister, I presented a very organized plan on how to manage the coronavirus, and there was a sense that it wasn’t being implemented because of ego and battles over credit. I have a lot of respect for Netanyahu, we need to give him a genuine thank you, but there’s something very unhealthy in the belief that has been fostered in many people that Israel can’t survive without Netanyahu.
It’s time to talk about the relationship between you and the chareidim. The first question our readers will want you to answer is: Naftali, are you with us or against us? At one point you were a close and loyal ally. At another point you allied with Yair Lapid, who persecuted us mercilessly. No other government has done to us what Lapid did. What happened between you then, and what’s going on now?
“I’ll start at the end. I want to help all the citizens of Israel. I want to help the chareidi community concretely in their daily lives, education, economy, parnassah…”
You aren’t mentioning the housing shortage…
“No, housing too, of course. We devoted an entire section in our plan to that. I want a chareidi to be able to go where he wants in this country and be accepted as he is. The alliance with Lapid in 2013 came as a result of Netanyahu’s decision to exclude us from the government, and you remember that well. We actually turned to the chareidi parties first, but they couldn’t help us.”
That’s tactfully put. What exactly do you mean, they couldn’t?
“Couldn’t or wouldn’t, that was their decision. Signing an agreement has consequences, maybe they were afraid of being left out of the government. I can’t analyze that.”
Let’s put this issue to rest once and for all. Is it possible that because it was your first term in the Knesset, the chareidim didn’t know you well enough and didn’t trust you?
“First of all, it’s true I was a newcomer then, but this time around, eight months ago, do you know what my demand was? I wanted to be health minister, which is considered one of the less attractive portfolios. I wanted to do it so I could help save lives. I think if I had gotten the position, the entire year would have looked different, with many fewer deaths…”
We’ll talk soon about the more recent past, but let’s go back to 2013. You never gave a clear answer about what exactly happened there…
“Wait a minute, that’s why I went to Lapid, to force my way into the government. This time too, when Netanyahu discarded us, the chareidim didn’t go to the mat for us. But that’s their right. I look at the chareidi community and I want it to integrate…”
Are you expressing regret, Naftali?
“Of course not.”
You have no regret for joining a government that harmed the chareidim?
“I’ll always do what I can to secure the political influence I need to do what’s necessary for Am Yisrael. I would have thought that after that, Netanyahu and the chareidi parties wouldn’t have gone and broken up the right-wing bloc as they did this past year. The chareidim knew what that meant.”
The chareidi community has just experienced one of its most difficult years in the history of the state. You’ve seen how they’re referred to — disease spreaders and other horrific pejoratives. Where was the non-chareidi leadership when it should have stepped up and decried the incitement against women and children? Where were you, Naftali Bennett?
“Look, I’m the first politician who came to the chareidi community’s defense — not just with words, I visited Bnei Brak three times, at a time when no chareidi politician thought to drop by. I went to Elad, I went to Beitar Illit, and I was the first. I didn’t just visit, either, I acted. As defense minister and Knesset member. I came and brought the paratrooper brigade and the commandos, and we saw some of the most beautiful pictures in the history of the country. We saw soldiers being greeted with affection by the chareidi community. So my commitment to the chareidi community isn’t something I need to prove.”
But you know that talk about not giving in to the chareidim plays into the hands of Lapid and Lieberman…
“I see things differently. You know who’s angriest at me right now? Lapid and Lieberman. They say I give in to the chareidim. I say, my friends, let’s let go of all this nonsense. Let’s solve the problems. But we have to understand that the chareidi community is a wonderful community.”
We asked you at the start of this interview about your status as kingmaker. At the end of the day, it may turn out that the choice will rest with you as to who will be a partner in the next government, Lieberman or the chareidim. In that scenario, whom will you choose?
“I’ll choose whoever’s willing to put hatred aside. It’s no coincidence that we’re the only party that isn’t banning anyone. I don’t ban anyone and I’m not going to say now that I’ll sit with this one and not with that one.”
To break it down to a yes-no question, you won’t lend a hand to creating a coalition without the chareidi parties.
“Of course not! I won’t lend a hand to anyone being banned.”
In our interview with Moshe Gafni last week, he predicted that we’ll have no choice but to go to fifth elections. Do you agree with that assessment?
In your view, this time there will be a decision?
“In one sentence? Look, it comes down to counting seats. You’re both experts at that. There’s only one scenario in which we don’t go to fifth elections, and that’s if Bennett has a lot of seats. Run the numbers and you’ll reach the same conclusion.”
Bennett refuses to give numbers, but if we want to keep our feet on the ground, it’s better to make this calculation without him anyway. The elections will be decided on the question of whether Yamina receives more seats than the Arab parties and holds the balance of power between the blocs. This battle won’t be decided only at the top of the field, but at the bottom too. At the end of the day, it comes down to how many and which parties fail to cross the threshold.
But Bennett isn’t going anywhere. He may talk tough now, but in the cold light of day after the elections, no one doubts that he’ll enter the government with Likud and the chareidim. If Netanyahu doesn’t reach 61 seats even with Bennett, though, everything is possible.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 852)
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